The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629

I wouldn’t want to live in sixteenth century France unless I was a fly on the wall. Reading Mack Holt’s book may be the next best thing. The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629 puts you through the bloodbaths of 16th-century France, at the safe distance of scholarly exposition and inquiry. There are many books on the Catholic-Huguenot wars, but this is the best I’m aware of, and there are three things especially I like about it.

The first is that the author cuts against the grain of foolish fads, and argues that religion played a central role in these wars. That’s right: religion played a key role in the wars of religion. Never take the obvious for granted, for it’s precisely the obvious that many prefer to deny. If you’ve heard it said enough times that jihad terrorism has nothing to do with Islam (despite jihadists’ candid admissions that it has everything to do with the Islamic religion), then perhaps it’s not terribly surprising to learn that scholars have sought to explain the Catholic-Huguenot conflicts in just about every possible framework except a religious one.

Which isn’t to say that Holt downplays the impact of other factors, like politics, economics, and social forces. Quite the contrary, those are weighed where appropriate. He has simply restored a crucial piece of the puzzle that had been missing for too long when he wrote the first edition of this book (in 1995).

The second thing I like is that there are no implied heroes or villains in these bloodbaths, save what readers may choose to make for themselves. Histories of Catholic-Protestant conflicts are too often written by anti-establishment types who portray the Protestant cause as the “right” one, standing against abusive power and superstition. I was half-expecting to see the Huguenots depicted as oppressed martyrs to “true Christianity”, or liberty-seeking folks who just wanted to be left alone. I was wrong and pleasantly surprised.

If anything, one might be misled into thinking that the author sides with the Gallican (French Catholic) point of view. He doesn’t, but what he does do is immerse the reader in the Gallican worldview and the particulars that were taken for granted. In France there was a special relationship between church and state that wasn’t duplicated elsewhere. The ecclesiastical nature of the French kingship went beyond those of the western monarchies. While it’s true that popes recognized other monarchs for their special service to God (like Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain), French kings relied on an older and unassailable tradition. Every single French king was Rex Christianissimus, the “Most Christian King”, not just ordained by God, but a god himself, (according to the Assembly of the French Clergy). The French kings were effectively god-kings who had a sacred duty to fight heresy and keep France pure of it. Their word was absolute and not to be questioned, but there was at least one thing that might provoke legitimate defiance: if the king refused to defend his kingdom from heresy. Thus after each of the wars, when Charles IX (after wars 1-4) and then Henry III (after wars 5-7) drew up compromises with the Huguenots, there was a growing outrage that the king was failing his sacred duty to eradicate heresy from the land.

So for example, when Charles IX toured the entire nation (in 1564-66) in order to excoriate the city Parlements in person, demanding the immediate and unconditional registration of the Edict of Amboise (1563) that he signed to end the first war, he was only grudgingly obeyed. Many of the judges and magistrates viewed his provisions for the Huguenots to be a severe breach of his royal prerogative — the oath he took to defend France from heresy. The resentment would eventually explode in the fourth war (1572-73) with the massacres of St. Bartholomew. In the case of Henry III, his breaches snowballed into schism, with Catholic hard-liners declaring that he had lost his right to the throne, triggering the eighth (and nastiest and longest) war that lasted from 1584-98. The pacification edicts of Charles IX and Henry III called forth what could be described as quasi-crusades against the Protestants in France.

This brings me to the third thing I like, the implied alignment of the French wars with the crusades. To be sure, they were not actually crusades, and Holt does not say they were. For all the variety of crusading theaters throughout the 11th-16th centuries (whether in Palestine, Spain, the Baltic region, northern Africa, or even the interior of Europe), the French wars of religion were not among them. A crusade had to be sanctioned by the pope and given the official penitential benefits (the remission for penalties of confessed sins), and the popes never blessed the wars against the French Protestants in this way.

Nevertheless, in my view, the fourth and eighth wars unfolded effectively as crusades, a “popular crusade” dominating the fourth war (1572-73), and the “inquisitional crusade” of the Holy League carrying the eighth (1584-98). That’s not exactly how Holt puts it in his book, but I think it’s essentially what he ends up describing.

The Popular “Crusades” of the Fourth War: The Massacres of St. Bartholomew’s Day

It’s worth citing Holt’s lengthy analysis of the massacres of St. Bartholomew’s Day that ignited the fourth war. But first the lead-up: the third war (1568-70) had represented a departure from the first two wars (1562-63, 1567-68), which were dominated by siege warfare in a few towns north of the Loire. The first two wars were grounded in religious conflict, to be sure, but they were not characterized by religious zeal. Nor was the third war. But the third war did involve the mobilization of large numbers of troops over large distances throughout the center and south of the kingdom, exposing the rural population to the costs of war they hadn’t previously known: murder, rape, pillage, the sacking of homes, theft of livestock, disruption of agricultural production, and peasants fleeing for their lives.

All of this inflamed the religious zeal of the masses, and holy confraternities sprang up everywhere in the wake of third-war atrocities. One pamphlet published in 1568 called on Catholics to “spill your blood for God, even to the last drop” against the Protestants. Outbreaks of popular violence, grounded in religiosity, began to erupt. Catholics started pursuing a New Jerusalem ideal cleansed of the infidel. Sermons urged them to heed God’s will to eradicate infidels within the kingdom, and this would all finally explode in an extended fury of popular violence in the fourth war — when all of the political decision-making of the court nobility receded into the background, as Catholics across the kingdom made a concerted effort, indeed, to spill Protestant blood “to the last drop”:

“The Huguenots not only had to be killed, but humiliated, dishonored, and shamed as the inhuman beasts they were perceived to be. They had to be dehumanized — slaughtered like animals — since they had violated all the sacred laws of humanity in Catholic culture. Moreover, death was followed by purification of the places the Huguenots had profaned. Many Protestant houses were burned, involving the traditional purification of fire for all heretics. Many were also thrown into the Seine, invoking the purification by water of Catholic baptism. The grisly deaths of hundreds of Protestants in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s night and after reveal distinct patterns of what Professor Natalie Davis has called the ‘rites of violence’. Many of the participants in the massacre saw themselves as carrying out clerical roles of priests and purifiers and magisterial roles of judges and executioners. The violence of the massacres was the result of something more than the unconscious fears, the uncontrolled rage, or the random violence so endemic to the period. The violence was not random at all, but patterned on the rites of the Catholic culture that had given birth to it. Despite the efforts by the king and many other notables to stop the spread of the violence, it continued off and on in the capital for nearly three days, resulting in as many as two thousand deaths.

“What had caused this unusually bloody outburst of violence, far more lethal than any previous incident in the Religious Wars of France (1562-1563, 1567-1568, 1568-1570)? And why did it go unchecked for so long? Two related points must be stressed if any sense is to be made of these ‘rites of violence’. First, the sources make it very clear that many of the participants fully believed that they were carrying out the will of the king [even though they were wrong in that belief]. It was a mistaken perception — that the king had condoned the killing of all the Protestants in the capital — that led many Catholics who were otherwise law-abiding citizens to seize the moment and take part in the spree of killing. Private passion against Protestantism was transformed into public duty… Second, the participants in the massacre also felt that extermination of the Huguenots was God’s will. The escalating rhetoric of Parisian pamphleteers and preachers after the Edict of St. Germain (in 1570, after the third war, which granted more favors and rights to Protestants than any previous edict) was a main factor in this perception. Heresy was a putrid infection of the social body that would contaminate the whole if not eradicated. Thus should heretics be exterminated by a “bitter death”… So convinced were the Parisians that God was growing ever more angry with them for continuing to allow the pollution of heresy, that every severe storm, occurrence of hail or sleet, flood of the Seine — even the solar eclipse on St. Michael’s Day in 1571 — were all perceived as signs of God’s anger.

“All the surviving evidence suggests that the popular massacre that broke out on Paris on St. Bartholomew’s night was neither planned nor condoned by the king’s council. The king himself issued orders as soon as the popular violence broke out for everyone in the city to return to their homes. And apart from the radical fringe of the city militia who did encourage and even led the populace in many of the attacks, the bulk of the king’s and the city’s forces seem to have been trying to maintain order rather than participating in the murders. Even Henry, duke of Guise, who personally took charge of the murder of [the Protestant Admiral] Coligny, made efforts to prevent the unnecessary deaths of other Protestants in the capital. All the Protestant sources claiming that the king, the Queen Mother, Henry of Anjou, or Guise had ordered the general massacres — which many historians have simply taken at face value — need to be balanced by the evidence of the strength of popular religious feeling in the capital at the time of the attempted assassination of Admiral Coligny.” (pp 87-90)

That was just in Paris. After the massacres in the capital, sacred violence broke out in the following cites: Orleans, La Charite, Meaux, Bourges, Saumur, Angers, Lyon, Troyes, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Gaillac. About 3000 Protestants total were killed in those dozen cities (in Paris alone the body count was 2000). All twelve (like Paris) once had very significant Protestant minorities. They were towns where sizeable Huguenot communities existed and thus had raised the same specter of heretical contamination. And seven of them — Rouen, Orleans, Lyon, Meaux, Bourges, Angers, and La Charite — had actually been taken over by Protestant minorities during the first war. They had returned to Catholic control, but with feelings of hostility and tensions similar to that in Paris.

And as in Paris, the chief agents of the violence were the local populace, who believed they were acting on behalf of the king and in full accordance with the divine will. They enacted the same kind of ritualistic murders (mutilation of corpses, killers roaming the streets singing and playing lutes and guitars), driven by religious zeal. This kind of holy violence did not erupt in cities under Huguenot control (like La Rochelle, Montauban, and Nimes) or in Catholic places where Protestant communities were too small to have created much division (like Dijon).

The “Inquisitional Crusades” of the Eighth War: The Holy League and the Sixteen

Each of the first seven wars lasted anywhere between six months and two years. The eighth war lasted a whole 14 years (June 1584 – April 1598), and was ignited when Henry III’s younger brother Francis died, thus making his brother-in-law, the Protestant Henry of Navarre, next in line for the throne. The mere thought of a Protestant as king of France was an abomination, and the holy screeds and pamphleteer sermons of 1570 suddenly gained new relevance. If Henry of Navarre became Henry IV, that would not only end the French monarchy, but all of French Catholic culture. It was cried out that, “The death of Francis is the ruin of France”, and that actually proved quite true, as his death spawned the most devastating, and inquisitorial of the French religious wars.

The fact that the threat of a Protestant king — and the threat made real in 1589 — could trigger so much bloodbath shows the degree to which France revered its “Most Christian King”. As I read the religio-politics of the time period, to have a Protestant on the French throne would be like having a President of the United States burning the American Constitution and declaring it null and void. In this light, what unfolded isn’t terribly surprising. Immediately upon Francis’s death in 1584, Catholic nobles (led by the Guises) gathered to form the infamous Catholic League (or Holy League). The nobles were from various confraternities, and their stated mission was the full eradication of Protestantism from France, the replacement of Henry III (who had been “too soft” on Protestants at the end of wars 5-7), and to find a suitable electable king now that the House of Valois was no longer bearing fruit.

The League thus certainly perceived their fight against the Huguenots as a crusade against heresy. Their polemic followed two general arguments, as Holt says: (1) that the law of Catholicity takes priority over Salic Law (the laws of dynastic succession), and (2) that it is legitimate to oppose the authority of a king who defies God and his coronation oath (in order to protect the most Catholic kingdom against heresy). In France at this time, the specter of a Protestant king was like the specter of a nuclear bomb in the modern world. The League was terrified, and ready to fight tooth and nail.

In following year (1585) came the even more notorious organization, when groups of lay Catholics — lawyers, merchants, royal officers, and curates — began to organize in private homes and chapels throughout Paris. This Paris cell became known as the Sixteen (because it established a committee in each of the 16 quarters of Paris) and managed to channel the overwhelming orthodox feelings of the masses into a political machine that was independent of the nobles and elites, and of the city municipal authorities, and even of the crown. It was mostly a middle-class movement that appealed to the lower classes. Its announced intention was to keep France pure and the monarchy Catholic.

The Guises and other aristocrats would often clash with the Sixteen, when their interests and methods differed, but as Holt demonstrates in the book, they were all bound together as a League by their hard-line Catholic religiosity.

The tide turns against Henry III

With such zeal propelling the League, Henry III didn’t stand much chance. 1588 was the critical year, when he was forced to flee Paris. A popular uprising had raised barricades on the streets in support of the Henry, the Duke of Guise. The Sixteen then took complete control of the government, while the Guises protected the surrounding supply lines. By this time, the League was in control of a handful of towns outside Paris (notable ones being Sens, Troyes, and Auxerre).

Soon after, in July, Henry had little choice but to accept almost all the League’s demands: reaffirming the Treaty of Nemours (1585), which had stripped Protestants of every single thing they gained in the previous seven edicts. Protestantism was now banned completely. It was illegal to even be Protestant, no matter how loyal to the crown. All Protestants had to renounce their faith within six months or be exiled.

Being outplayed — and kicked out of his own capital — Henry III retaliated in a very rash manner. On December 23 he summoned Henry, Duke of Guise, and his brother the Cardinal of Guise, to his chamber in the castle at Blois. He murdered the Guises the next day, hacked their bodies to pieces, burned them to ash, and then proceeded calmly to Christmas Eve mass. If he thought he was making an effective strike against the League by killing their top-dog leaders, he was drastically mistaken.

In the immediate wake of the Guise murders, shitloads of towns rose up in support of the League, crying for the king’s blood. Even those which had previously rejected the League now embraced it: Agen, Amiens, Bourges, Dijon, Issoire, Le Mans, Nantes, Poitiers, Rouen, Toulouse, and many, many more. On top of that, the Sixteen began a purge of the Paris Parlement and other courts, replacing judges with extreme radicals. Anyone even suspected of being a moderate or having royalist sympathies was publicly hanged throughout the capital.

Henry III then resorted to something he surely never thought he would do, making a truce with his brother-in-law, Henry of Navarre. The Catholic king and Protestant heir stunningly agreed to suspend their differences for one year in order to wage war on the League that was turning France into an inquisitional bloodbath. The following year, in August 1589, both the crown (under Henry III) and the Huguenots (under Henry of Navarre) moved on Paris, but Henry III was assassinated just west of the capital before that could happen.

So Henry of Navarre was suddenly Henry IV — the first Protestant king of France. He was absolutely rejected by the League and the overwhelming majority of French citizens. It would take him five years, and renouncing his Protestant faith, before he was crowned and entered Paris, finally accepted as Rex Christianissimus. (in March 1594). During those years the League conducted a reign of inquisitional terror. The Sixteen became so extreme that during Henry IV’s siege of Paris (in 1590, which failed), some of them began to cry for overturning the monarchy altogether and establishing a Catholic republic. Most of them, however, looked to Philip II of Spain, who sent Spanish troops to keep Henry IV at bay, and to keep martial law inside of Paris.

The Edict of Nantes

After kicking Spain’s ass (1595-1598), Henry IV finally put an end to the religious wars that had ravaged France for 36 years. Holt’s discussion of the Edict of Nantes (signed on April 13, 1598) is important and counters a lot of misconceptions about the edict’s supposed provision for “religious toleration”. The edict did not introduce such a policy. It allowed for temporary religious co-existence. The provisions for Huguenots (such as allowing them to remain armed and in possession of many fortified towns) would expire in eight years. Its goal was provisional religious unity, not the toleration of differing confessions.

As Holt emphasizes, Henry IV wasn’t a modern secularist or ecumenist interested in playing “fair ball” to both sides. He was, in the end, committed to the French Gallican monarchy of his predecessors — that is, the restoration of “one king, one faith, one law”. The idea that his conversion to Catholicism was skin deep — that he was a manipulator or hypocrite for abjuring his Protestant religion — is without foundation. His subsequent efforts in encouraging nobles to return to Catholicism speaks to his sincerity. He crafted the Edict of Nantes to establish a provisional compromise, so as to put an end to bloodshed, but without giving up the principle of Catholic primacy in the long run.

Other stuff: Who were the Protestants?

Holt’s book is full of interesting information, and he starts at the beginning, in the year 1516, not 1562, to provide all the background that led up to the wars. The chambre ardente (“fire chambers”) that sent Protestants to be burned at the stake (during the reigns of Francis I and Henry II in the 1540s) is a particularly colorful account, with solid data as to the numbers of victims burned vs. those who received lighter punishments.

But who were the French Protestants to begin with? In what regions did they especially grow at the start of the 16th century, and why? When they reached their high point between 1560-1570, there were about 1200 Protestant churches in France, for a total of maybe 1,800,000 members, or roughly 10% of the population. They weren’t evenly distributed throughout the kingdom. There were a significant number north of the Loire, especially in Normandy, but most of them spanned the southern arc, from La Rochelle, down to Bordeaux and Toulouse, then over to Montpelier, and up to Lyon. This crescent of strength in Guyenne (Acquitaine/Midi Pyrenees), Languedoc, Provence, and Dauphine (Rhone-Alpes) — often broadly called the region of the Midi — was where most of the Huguenots were. (Click on the map to the left. The red and pink areas are the Protestant heavy areas.) But they never achieved more than 10% of the total population.

Protestants were especially absent in Auvergne, Burgundy, Champagne, Picardy, and Brittany — another arc which is all over the place. So obviously geography, or proximity to Geneva, had nothing to do with it. Burgundy was very close to Calvinist Geneva, yet it remained hard-core Catholic. Towns with printing presses also had nothing to do with it, despite what we often hear. With the exception of Lyon, most of the printing industry was in the north, not the south, and the hotbed of Protestantism was in the south.

Holt argues that the social geography of French Protestantism hinged more on local factors and traditions than any mono-causal determinant like language, literacy, social class, or proximity to Geneva.

For example, in Languedoc, regional autonomy seemed to play the key role. Languedoc was one of the pays d’etats provinces that had the right to convoke provincial estates to assist the crown in assessment and collection of royal taxes. (Burgundy, Brittany, Dauphine, and Provence were the other pays d’etats.) In Languedoc, the estates were in the game of expropriating church land and clerical wealth to help meet the fiscal demands of the crown. Thus, the autonomous struggle with the crown for lower taxes and fewer fiscal demands became linked to Protestantism when local bourgeois saw their survival and that of the new religion having common cause.

In the pays d’etat of Burgundy, on the other hand, the opposite happened. In that province the provincial estates, the Parlement of Dijon, and the city councils all came to perceive their regional identity as tied to the Catholic church. Burgundian economy thrived on the wine industry, and many of the lands with vineyards were owned by, or had ties to, local cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries. The fruits of these labors were chosen by God to become Christ’s blood, and so in Burgundy’s case, unlike Languedoc’s, the regional autonomy became linked to Catholicism.

Scholars have nonetheless persisted in seeing social class as the determinant factor, parroting Henry II’s disdain for Protestant “low-life rabble” as if it were actual fact. The real fact is that in its initial stages, French Protestantism was largely an urban movement of the educated and literate.

As Holt points out, certain trades seemed to have attracted disproportionate numbers of Protestant converts: printers, booksellers, painters, jewelers, goldsmiths, manufacturers of silk cloths. In other words, trades in which literacy was an essential skill, or involved new technology or a certain amount of prestige. Meanwhile, very few were converted from the unskilled classes (butchers, bakers, vinters, weavers, etc.) Well-educated and high-status artisans were — at least initially — over-represented in the Protestant movements of cities like Rouen, Montpelier, and Lyon.

But here again, there were exceptions. In a city like Amiens (in Picardy), Protestantism was not a movement of self-assertive and literate middle classes, but rather, indeed, of the frustrated, exploited, and economically oppressed. In Amiens the bedrock of Protestantism was the city’s textile workers (especially the wool-combers and weavers), whose lives were controlled by cloth merchants. Their position was precarious, unlike the prosperous print workers in Lyon or merchants and artisans of Rouen. The reason is that Amiens was a textile center where the bulk of all artisans worked in the textile trades. Due to the size and importance of their profession to the local economy, authorities didn’t allow them to follow the normal path of corporate organization and control practiced by other craftsmen in the city. In other words, textile workers in Amiens didn’t enjoy the autonomy to regulate themselves, and so they appeared to have sought for such an identity in the reformed religion of Protestantism.

In sum, people became attracted to the Protestant movement and its doctrines based largely on provincial factors.

Verdict

Holt’s book is fantastic and an essential reading for the French wars of religion. And as a post-script, he does not stop the story where most historians do, at 1598. That’s admittedly a convenient cut-off date, but there was more fighting between Catholics and Protestants that went on until 1629.

More importantly: to end the story at 1598 fuels the misleading perception that the Edict of Nantes was intended to establish a permanent settlement of co-existence between Catholics and Protestants, with significant religious toleration on both sides. To reiterate, Henry IV wasn’t so modern-thinking as that, and his intentions with the edict were actually quite the opposite. Ridding the kingdom of heresy was far more important than “playing fair ball”. The edict was a temporary settlement. The king, per his Gallican mandate, sincerely hoped that more Huguenots could be persuaded to abjure the Protestant faith, just as he had. That may not make Henry IV the most relevant hero for our time, but it makes him a very realistic hero in the 16th century.

The Lost City: The Jihad of Sayid al-Naji

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 Thirteen:

                    The Jihad of Sayid al-Naji

 

He knew what they were as soon as he saw them.

Jihadists.

Not bandits, who plagued the village’s environs like locusts, and who were filthy and less disciplined. These warriors were filthy too, in the way of unwashed, but they were uniformly dressed, in black pants and tunics, and they rode their camels in ordered formation. As they got clearer, Mike could make out the robed mullah riding in front, and the standard bearer to his left, bearing the image he didn’t like to see: a silhouette of a palm tree growing in the desert, with a rising moon on the background. The symbol of the Prophet.

Jihadists, no question.

“Stay inside and out of sight!” said Faizan, ready to go out and meet the visitors. His son Malik glared at Mike with the usual contempt. Then they both went outside.

Mike did as they instructed. His presence here put his hosts at extreme risk. He sat in a chair by the hut’s window, and angled himself so that he could watch what was happening without (hopefully) being seen in turn.

Faizan and Malik walked about twenty feet from the front door of their home, and waited as the mullah and warriors – about a score of them – came up to them.

“Peace be upon you,” said the mullah, his voice rasping with hate.

“And upon you as well,” said Faizan neutrally.

“I am Omar, mullah of the Tajha mosque in Sulba. Who are you?”

“I am Faizan Jalal. This is my son Malik. We’re tailors for Suqatra, the village you passed on your way here.”

“Who else lives in this house?” asked the mullah rudely.

“My daughter,” said Faizan. “Areesha.”

“No wives?” asked Omar.

Faizan shook his head. “My Ezma died two years ago. I’ve not remarried.”

“You should,” said the mullah bluntly. “A man needs wives to plow, and a full family keeps a household pure. Pure from blasphemy and hellish beliefs.”

Mike swore under his breath, staying hidden.

“How may I be of assistance, mullah?” asked Faizan in a barely controlled voice.

“It’s been reported that there is an infidel being given sanctuary outside the edge of the village. By you. The rumors say this filthy god-worshiper worships a whore, and he’s been living with you for months. And that he tells strange tales. Tales of a lost city – an abominable city – that was supposed to have been wiped out centuries ago.”

“I tend to ignore rumors,” said Faizan sourly.

“Be sure that our rightly guided Caliph does not ignore them,” said Omar. “When they hit the capital, His Excellency paid close attention. The jihad goes on. There is always unbelief to be rooted out – and pockets of that pestilence hidden where you least expect.”

“I believe in the Truth,” said Faizan proudly. “My family and I have lived by every word of the Raysh, even in the years of the Preceptors.”

“Praise the Prophet for their passing,” said the mullah. “Blaspheming heretics.”

“Yes,” said Faizan. “Praise the Jihad of Sayid al-Naji. My son here served in the war. Last year, when Makistan was taken.”

“And yet you are harboring a god-worshiper?”

Mike tensed by the window.

“I am,” declared Faizan.

“Explain yourself,” barked Omar.

“I am honor bound to provide for the man. He single-handedly rescued both of my daughters from bandits. The bandits had already raped my younger daughter but not Areesha. The unbeliever rescued them both and returned them to me. He slew all of the bandits – eight of them – but they came from a large nest. Many more of the scum tracked him down – here, to my home that afternoon, after they asked around and learned where my daughters lived. Almost twenty of them. The infidel protected my family and slew them all.”

The mullah scoffed. “One man against eight and then twenty? You’re lying. Or those bandits were a pack of cripples.”

“They were all able-bodied and armed,” said Faizan. “Vicious murderers.”

“Bandit scum don’t interest me,” said the mullah dismissively. “A whore worshiper does. An infidel is an infidel. I enforce Yshlimic Law. The Law of the Prophet.”

So it’s true, thought Mike. Clerics were the ultimate authority in these lands. Warriors answered to them. He tried to imagine Kanadius and Pandora being bossed around by priests and priestesses. They would have shouted their clerics down with little effort. Priests did of course have authority in the Cynidicean cults – they led the communities in the underground strongholds – but not in military matters.

“My son and I have been educating the infidel,” said Faizan. “Reading the Raysh. Explaining how everyone in our great Yshlimic nation will be governed only by the Raysh and Yshlimic law. How the Prophet, blessed be his name -”

“Where is he now?” interrupted the mullah. The height of bad manners.

Mike was sweating, not for fear of his own safety – he was nearly invincible – but for the safety of this family who was protecting him. The Raysh was quite clear: those who didn’t follow the Eternal Truth had three options: convert to Yshlim, pay the cordu, or die. Mike would never convert to the barbaric religion of Yshlim, and he had no intentions of paying the cordu either. The cordu was the special tax that unbelievers could pay and live in the Emirates as little better than slaves. The cordu had evolved as a matter of practicality, giving the Yshians their chief source of income as they waged jihad on the world, and it was the means of keeping unbelievers subjected and humiliated. Cordu infidels could not hold positions of authority over Yshians; they could have only menial jobs; they could not build any shrines or temples to their gods; they had to make way if an Yshian approached on the street, and wear the black-and-yellow insignia on their shoulder (it reminded Mike of the Jews in Nazi Germany). While nominally protected, cordu infidels would in practice often be abused or beaten by Yshians with impunity. The cordu tax was by no means a benign practice. It was a mafia racketeer form of “protection”. Mike would burn in the Hells before paying the cordu.

That meant the third option for him, a sentence of death – both on him and any Yshian believer who sheltered him. He wasn’t worried about himself. But he didn’t want this family coming to harm, even though he didn’t really like Faizan and loathed Malik with every fiber of his being. It was Areesha he cared about.

“He is inside the hut,” said Faizan.

“Bring him out,” ordered Omar.

“I will not do that,” said Faizan.

The mullah looked as if he’d been slapped. “What did you say?”

Shit. Mike tightened his grip on the sword hilt strapped at his side. He continued watching through the window.

“The unbeliever is under my protection,” said Faizan, “with full guest rights. I am honor bound to protect him for avenging the honor of my family. The laws of hospitality laid out in the zhariat provide for this.”

The mullah flushed. “Don’t you dare quote the Prophet’s Law to me! Honor debts do not extend to infidels! Especially whore worshipers!”

“I’m not a cleric,” said Faizan. “I don’t know how to debate the holy texts. All I know is that I am a devout Yshian. I believe in the Raysh. I believe that unbelievers should be slain or subjugated with humiliation, just as you do. But I also believe in the virtue of honor, and honor applies to anyone. The unbeliever inside is under my protection, and he will remain so until I deem my debt to him repaid. If this means you will kill me – then blessed be the Prophet – so be it. I am not afraid to die. Nor is my son. We will oppose you and your men if you try to get past us.”

“For now I just want to speak to him,” snapped the mullah.

Faizan considered. “What about?”

“I do not answer to you!”

“Then my answer is no,” said Faizan. “I will not bring him out here.”

Mike sighed, knowing what he would have to do. He left his spot at the window and opened the front door of the hut.

As soon as he stepped outside, the jihadists drew their long bows.

Mike knew that Faizan had meant every word he said to the mullah. He and Malik weren’t afraid to die. They weren’t being cocky just because they knew Mike could have killed these jihadists in his sleep. Even if their guest had been infirm, they would have defended that guest as they were defending Mike now. They were devout Yshians, but they were honorable to a fault.

Yet it was more than honor: Faizan truly didn’t want this matter to escalate. If Mike killed these holy warriors – which he most certainly could have – then the repercussions on the Jalal family, and indeed the entire village of Suqatra, would be devastating. An army of jihadists would return, burn the village to the ground, execute the Falal family, and hunt Mike down. Mike was “nearly invincible”, but the Hand had its limits; its sorcery could be exhausted. His body couldn’t keep absorbing damage non-stop in a small time frame. Twenty men were no problem. Over fifty, he had to start worrying. Over a hundred, he could well be killed.

Mike put his hands in the air. Killing the mullah and these men was definitely out of the question. And he had made promises to himself in any case, when he left the Lost City. He was through with killing – unless it absolutely couldn’t be avoided.

“Keep your hands up, infidel, and come out here slowly,” said Omar.

Mike walked up and stood next to Faizan and Malik. The mullah regarded him hostilely. Mike glared up at him on his camel, coldly.

“You are the unbeliever who has been living here?” asked the cleric. “For months now?”

“Yes,” said Mike. “My name is Mike Wheeler. Mr. Jalal and I have an arrangement and I am not bothering anyone. Those in the nearby village almost never see me.”

“Your presence is bothersome,” said the mullah trenchantly. “It is poison. You are a god-worshiper. Yes?”

“Yes,” said Mike.

“You worship a whore?”

Mike bristled. “I worship Madarua. She’s not a whore.”

“The Whore indeed,” said the mullah. “That name hasn’t been heard in the Emirates for centuries. Since the fall of Cynidicea. And you say you come from Cynidicea? From a city beneath the ruins there?”

Mike cursed Malik for his loose lips. Faizan’s son talked to many friends in the village, and it could only be his gossip that started the rumor chain that eventually, over months, made its way back to the capital. “It’s not much of a city, really,” he lied, “but there are some descendants of the old kingdom down there.”

“How many?”

“Maybe two hundred.”

“Liar,” said the mullah.

Mike flushed, wanting to disembowel the cleric.

“No one has heard of the Prophet in this city?” asked Omar.

“No one,” said Mike.

“Everyone is a god-worshiper?”

“Yes. Most worship Zargon the Devourer. His priests are evil and practice blood sacrifice, which keeps the population controlled. But there are some followers of the old Cynidicean gods: Gorm – god of war, storms, and justice. Madarua – goddess of birth, death, and the seasons. Usamigaras – god of magic, messengers, and thieves.”

“Ah yes,” the mullah’s lips curled in a sneer. “The Brute, the Whore, and the Sneak. The other one is just as false. They are all false. As are you, Mike Wheeler.”

The Brute? Mike almost laughed. He had served in the Brotherhood for three months. Gorm was a teddy bear compared to al-Kalim. The Yshian Prophet had left a trail of more brutality in the past 230 years than any other religion in five times the amount of time. Including probably the Zargonites, who were thoroughly vile, but not expansionist like the Yshians. The demands of Yshlim were clear: the entire world must be brought under the Eternal Truth. It was the Yshian dream – the Dream of the Desert Garden – to wipe out the worship of all deities, so that only the Truth remained; and so that all people everywhere lived under zhariat law. Mike couldn’t imagine a more oppressive vision.

“And there are two entrances to the city?” asked Omar. “The pyramid and the underground tunnels?”

Mike was seething. He should have never revealed so much to his new family. At the time he’d been in the desert only a month, in this backwater region where the greatest threats appeared to be lawless unorganized bandits. He had been clueless then about the land’s politics, the expansionist Yshlimic religion, and the eternal mandate of holy war to which every able-bodied Yshian male was subject. Anyone could be drafted by the mullahs at a moment’s notice. If Caliph al-Naji intended to send huge numbers of jihadists to Cynidicea, things could get ugly. The pyramid entrance was a death trap; it was designed to hold off large numbers of intruders. But if the jihadists found the two hidden entrances outside the ruins, they would have easy access to the undercity. It would be a bloodbath. Unless Will could be triggered to unleash the Eye… but that could spell disaster for everyone.

“There’s only one entrance,” said Mike. “The pyramid. I don’t know -”

“Liar,” said the mullah. “Where exactly are the hidden tunnels?”

“I said I don’t know,” lied Mike.

“We’re going to find them anyway.”

“I said there’s only one -”

“What happened to your hand?” asked the mullah.

“What?” said Mike, caught off guard.

“Your hand. Why is it black, unlike the rest of you?”

“It’s… nothing. Just a birth defect.”

“Liar,” said the mullah. “It’s the mark of a sorcerer, isn’t it? It’s how you killed all the bandits that your host speaks of.”

“I’m not a sorcerer,” said Mike.

The mullah smiled. “Do you think you could kill me and my men? Single-handedly?”

I could send you all to Hell barely lifting a finger. “I’m not interested in starting a fight.”

“Do you think I fear you?” taunted the mullah.

I think you’re too stupid to be scared. Though that wasn’t true; Mike knew better by now. Stupidity had nothing to do with it. To die while killing – or trying to kill – infidels was the greatest glory for any Yshian. It guaranteed a believer everlasting life in the Eternal Garden.

Once Mike had finally grasped that idea – in one of his long evening conversations with Faizan – he’d realized how terrifying Yshian society was. It was one thing to esteem dying in a good battle. Gorm and Madarua – hell, any warrior deity – took that view. But to reward the murder of innocent people, for the crime of unbelief (belonging to a different religion) – and to reward dying for that cause as the highest act of righteousness – that took the guardrails off civilization. Jihadists couldn’t be reasoned with; they welcomed death with open arms.

“No,” said Mike, answering honestly for a change. “I don’t think you fear me at all.”

The mullah laughed. “You’re going to die, infidel. Not today, perhaps, but when Faizan Jalal decides that his debt to you is repaid, I will be sure to have more than enough men ready to act. Try your sorcery against hundreds of Yshians waiting to take your head. Faizan!”

“Yes, mullah?” Faizan looked like he was swallowing bile.

“For how long do you consider yourself in the infidel’s debt?”

“For a year, mullah,” said Faizan. “Considering all he did for us. He has been with us for three months. So nine more months.”

“The Caliph may have something to say about your honor debt.”

“I will do as His Excellency commands, if it comes to that,” said Faizan. “But short of a command from Sayid al-Naji himself, I will not revoke Mike Wheeler’s guest rights. I repeat: I am a loyal Yshian and I follow the Prophet. I reject god-worshiping as an abomination. I believe in the Raysh and its commands to kill unbelievers like Mike Wheeler. But I am also civilized. I know what honor demands. And I believe that Truth can reveal itself to an infidel in mysterious ways.”

“Save your hot air for your prayers. You’ll need them.” The mullah looked back to Mike. “Seeing you has confirmed the rumors for me, despite your obvious lies. I got what I came for. We’ll be leaving now.” He turned to go.

“Wait,” said Mike. “What do you intend to do about Cynidicea? The people who live there are no threat to you at all. They just want to be left alone.” He already knew the answer. The Caliphate didn’t wage wars for defensive purposes, but to fulfill the Raysh’s command to spread Yshlim to every corner of the world, and slay or convert people accordingly.

The mullah replied: “The people there are every threat – to the Truth and to themselves. We will bring the jihad to Cynidicea, put an end to god-worship, and slay those who refuse to heed the Prophet’s words. Those who accept Yshlim will be brought out onto the surface and assimilated into the desert, as true Yshians.” He spat on the ground. “In the meantime, Faizan Jalal, think carefully for how long you wish to associate with this man. He’s a liar, a whore lover, and a sorcerer.”

The mullah and his warriors turned their camels and left.

 

“Father!” yelled Malik. “That was a disgraceful interview!”

“You question my judgment?” yelled Faizan. “Are you a man of honor or not?”

They had returned inside as soon as the mullah and his jihadists were gone. Areesha had emerged from her bedroom, having heard the entire altercation outside through her window. She sat next to Mike, who held her hand, while Faizan and Malik stood shouting.

“Well, are you?” repeated Faizan. “A man of honor? Or an uncivilized barbarian?”

“I am honorable!” yelled Malik. “And I am not afraid to die! But father, think of the shame this brings on our name – our village! The jihadists will likely come back and burn Suqatra to the ground! If they’re not doing it right now.” He glared at Mike.

Mike squeezed Areesha’s hand softly and put his arms around her, just to infuriate her brother.

“If they come to burn us, then daja is daja,” said Faizan.

Daja was a concept found in the Raysh. To Mike it seemed self-contradictory, meaning luck and fate; something given to chance but also destined.

Daja is daja,” agreed Malik, “and the purity of this household is under our control!”

“We live as we should,” said Faizan simply, “and let daja take care of itself.”

“And are we really to be in Mike’s debt for nine more months?” asked Malik.

“I’m right here, Malik,” said Mike. You piece of shit.

“Oh yes,” sneered Malik. “You’re always here. Eating our food, devouring our hospitality, feasting your lecher’s eyes on my sister. By the Prophet, you will never marry her!”

Mike took abuse from Malik all the time, but there were limits to what he would tolerate. “I treat Areesha with respect. Which is more than I can say for you.” He regretted it as soon as he said it.

“What did you say to me?” yelled Malik. He towered over Mike in his seat. “You dare challenge me in my own house?”

I’d kill you, you flaming bigot, but your sister would never forgive me. Mike was in love with Areesha, and thus the whole problem.

“Malik,” said Faizan. “Go outside and clean up the barn.”

“He dares insult me!” Malik was livid.

“It’s been a hard day for us all,” said his father. “I’m sure Mike didn’t mean what he said just now.” He looked at Mike expectantly.

You’re right. I meant far worse. Mike cleared his throat. “I apologize, Malik. You are an honorable man and an honorable brother. And I am ignorant. Still. Please forgive me. I am grateful for the life you and your family have provided me here.”

Malik scowled. Then he stalked outside to finish chores.

“Father, please may I ask,” said Areesha, when her brother was gone, “the mullah has the information he needs, correct? He said as much to Mike. He came looking for confirmation about Cynidicea. So he will leave us alone, yes?”

“No, you may not ask,” said Faizan. “You ask far too many questions. A woman should hold her tongue and listen. You may leave this room, is what you may do. Now.”

“Yes, Father,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She got up and left obediently, heading into the kitchen.

Mike got up to follow her, but Faizan stopped him. “I haven’t dismissed you. Sit down.”

Mike sat, simmering.

Faizan looked at him. “Malik can be difficult. And Areesha is a pest.”

Malik is a wad of fifty hemorrhoids. And Areesha is pure grace.

“You have nothing to say to me?” snapped Faizan.

Mike flushed. “I feel like I’m a burden to you most of the time. And I put your lives at risk today. I’m sorry for it.”

“Our lives were put at risk the first day you came here. Your filthy god-worshiping presence. Our lives were put at risk a week later, when my stupid idiot son shot off his mouth about you down in the village. Daja, and gossip, took care of it from those points.”

“Should I have killed them?” asked Mike.

Faizan raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

I don’t know. I wanted to kill them. Anything to stop or delay the jihad being sent against Cynidicea. “I think if I had killed them, your whole village area would suffer.”

Faizan laughed. “If you’d killed them, every one of us in ten square miles would be crucified. But I’m asking about you. You’re concerned for your friends.” He wasn’t asking, he was stating.

“Yes,” said Mike. “I mean, Will can see everything, so I guess he knows what’s coming. I guess. But I don’t know. I don’t know how everything is there.” Or if Will is even okay. For all I know, he’s catatonic again and can’t share information with anyone.

Faizan grunted and shifted in his chair. “I’ll remember your friends in my prayers. I pray with all my heart that this Lost City you come from is demolished and laid waste, and that survivors embrace the Eternal Truth. But I hope your friends are spared the slaughter.”

“Thank you,” said Mike.

“Are you leaving us?” the old man asked bluntly.

“What? No, of course not.” The wounds there were still too fresh. He’d killed his best friend. There was no coming home after that. Or to she who betrayed him.

“Liar,” said Faizan, without any malice. “I believe you’ll go back. You’ve been away from your friends for four months now. Can’t avoid your problems forever. You’re welcome to stay here for another nine months, as I’ve said. But this home has become a crutch for you, in a land that clearly isn’t for you. And I think you know that.”

 

Later, Mike went outside to use the latrine. It was far down from the hut and past the barn. When he got to the latrine, he heard someone behind him. He stopped and turned around. It was Malik, raw with rage.

“Malik, I’m sorry for -”

The sword came out of nowhere, fast and unexpected. It buried itself into Mike’s neck, and Mike staggered a bit. Anyone else would have been fountaining red, but only a few specks of blood flew from Mike. Anyone else would have been killed, but Mike’s gash was already healing as Malik drew back for another swing.

Furious and fed up – Malik had never assaulted him before – Mike seized the sword blade and yanked it from Malik’s grip. His hand barely bled from the slice he gave himself. He flipped it so that he held the hilt and then with the speed of a ninja swung the blade at Malik’s neck. He stopped it less than an inch away. Barely in time.

Malik didn’t flinch at all. His eyes poured venom as the blade hovered by his neck.

Mike threw the sword on the ground. “So much for your fucking honor, asshole.”

Malik was unfazed. “If you had continued the blow, you would have decapitated me. Yes?”

“Of course,” said Mike.

“Then why did you stop? You hate me, yes?”

“I don’t like killing.” And I don’t want your sister to hate me. Or be on difficult terms with your father, who is more than enough difficult as it is.

“I have killed many, doing the Prophet’s work,” said Malik. “In the jihad last year, when Makistan was still in rebellion. And I will kill many more – enemies of Yshlim, infidels like yourself. ” He picked his sword up off the ground. “It was daja that stopped your blow, nothing more. Not your womanish feelings. And I am a man of honor. I wasn’t trying to kill you, because I know it takes an army to harm you. I was seeing if you were man enough to kill me. You are not.” He turned to go back in the barn, and then stopped to look again at Mike. “If those jihadists come back here, it’s on you.” Then he stalked off.

He’s a devil, thought Mike. There’s naught in him that makes him a worthy human being.

It was getting harder to control his animosity towards Malik. He couldn’t believe he’d lasted three months under the same roof with him. He had wanted to kill Malik the first day he met him. That horrible day, and a crucial turning point for Mike, when he rescued Areesha and her younger sister.

 

He replayed that monstrous event whenever he looked at Malik. He saw a demon in that face, but it was really just the face of Yshlim.

He’d been riding his horse Legba around the outskirts of the village when he saw the bandits. Eight of them, assaulting two girls on their walk home. They were already raping one of them. Immediately Mike charged, astonishing the ruffians who couldn’t believe that a single man was willing to take them on. Mike leaped off his horse and slaughtered every one of them in due course. The older girl identified herself as Areesha Jalal. She was grateful, but the younger one, Haniya, had been violated by three of the men. Areesha told Mike where they lived, and Mike had put them both on Legba and walked them home.

When they got there, Faizan and Malik flew out the front door, appalled. Mike introduced himself and explained what happened, as Haniya stood wailing in her sister’s arms. At first the men thought Mike was lying. An infidel who defended the honor of two girls by killing eight men all by himself? Areesha swore by the Prophet that everything Mike said was true.

Hearing her oath, Faizan and Malik thanked Mike for avenging the family honor. Then Malik drew his sword, grabbed Haniya, and thrust his blade through the girl’s stomach and out her back. Mike exploded and drew his sword.

“No!” yelled Areesha, grabbing Mike’s arm. “Do not!”

Mike whirled on her. “Are you insane?”

“Please don’t interfere!” said Areesha. “Haniya brought shame on our family. Malik has restored our honor.”

Mike gaped at her. “What do you mean? What on earth did she do?” What could a fourteen-year old girl do to deserve being raped and killed?

“She did nothing,” cried Areesha. “She was defiled.”

Mike stood shell shocked as Areesha continued weeping, Malik carried away his sister’s corpse, and Faizan came up to Mike and took the sword from his hand. He was unable to process what he had just witnessed. A brother had just murdered his sister in cold blood, for being an innocent victim of the worst crime. It made no sense at all.

And it was in that moment – of his twenty-second day in the desert – that Mike Wheeler had seen Yshian culture for what it was. Not just “radically different”, but objectively inhumane, and not remotely comparable to what he’d left behind. Cynidicean culture was medieval, to be sure, but Mike had adapted to it. He had looked on it, dealt with it, and found reasonable answers for it in his philosophy. So had his friends. But the hurts he had seen on the desert surface went beyond that, and the sight of an honor-killing shattered him completely. His hatred for Yshlim would be reinforced over the next few months, as he learned about jihad and other demands of the Raysh. Mike was neither naive nor pacifistic. He’d been a Brother of Gorm, for Christ’s sake, and now a Maiden of Madarua. But those war cults didn’t endorse systematic murder. They didn’t punish women who were raped; they didn’t execute homosexuals as criminals; and they didn’t kill people for simply having different religious beliefs. The Zargonites were evil, but if you could avoid the sacrificial knife, you could find a measure of happiness in the Cynidicean underworld – retreat into imagination and party your life away. Hell, the Zargonites encouraged it. Yshian life was innately cruel, and an open reminder of that cruelty. Mike saw all of this at once, in the moment Haniya was cut open by her brother.

It was also in that moment he had fallen hard in love with Areesha.

 

He was allowed to hold and kiss her, but only indoors. Sex was off the board, and he was not permitted in her bedroom. Her sexual honor was the family’s honor, and Mike had to accept that, or he could say good-bye and never see her again. He couldn’t possibly not see her again.

He had held her for a long time after his turning moment. He’d only just met her, but he was at once in love and fiercely territorial. He would be her guardian, lest she too fall prey to the obscene demands of honor. Faizan and Malik agreed to his request. They owed him a colossal debt. He had killed Haniya’s attackers, and then many more of the scum when they came calling for blood. Faizan offered Mike a place in his home: food, a place on the floor to sleep, and the guardianship of Areesha. In effect this made Mike the bodyguard for the Jalal family, whenever the men were at home. Areesha seldom walked outside beyond the house anymore, and never without Mike’s protection.

Malik had choked on some of this. He didn’t like his father’s concessions with Areesha. Mike had done the Jalals great honor, yes, but he was still an infidel, and Areesha was Malik’s sister. He didn’t like Mike touching her at all. Faizan silenced him, his voice slashing the air. This was his house, and he set the rules. He declared his terms reasonable and weighed proportionately to what Mike had done. Malik would abide by these terms, or he would be lashed by his father for disobedience.

Because of this arrangement, Mike had been able to carve out some joy in a joyless land. For three months he and Areesha had laughed with each other, held each other, and occasionally kissed each other. They talked about their lives, and marveled at the other’s values. Mike told her about America, and she didn’t believe most of what he was describing. The United States sounded like a fairy tale. But she believed what he said about Cynidicea. She told him about the Yshian way of life in the Emirates; there was virtually nothing redeemable about it. He told her as much many times.

“You’re a nation of murderers,” he said one morning, as he held her on the couch. The men had gone to the village.

“No, Mike,” she said, always patient with him. “We are not murderers. Life and death are the same in the Eternal Truth. And for those who reject the Truth, better that they die and not spread their false beliefs like a contagion.”

“I don’t accept the Eternal Truth,” said Mike. “I reject your Prophet. So you think I should die?”

“I don’t know everything,” said Areesha. “I believe there is hope for you, otherwise why would daja have made you part of this family?”

My fucking Hand made me part of this family. “I’m here because I love you.”

She kissed his cheek. “I love you too. But you misjudge us.”

Misjudge, my ass. He tried to imagine his sister Nancy getting raped, and then being honor-bound to kill her for bringing “dishonor” upon herself and her family. He smoldered with fury that any society could operate that way.

Aliens and worlds apart. It was no obstacle to how they felt for each other. They enjoyed their talks, and their disagreements. And during this time – his exile, as he came to think of it – Mike rarely thought of the Lost City. Opening those wounds was too much. He dreamt of Lucas some nights, and woke in a sweat, hating himself. The way he saw it, he deserved to be exiled in this terrible land. He dreamt of Jilanka other nights, and woke in a fever, wanting to barge into Areesha’s bedroom and take her with fury. He never did; he respected his host’s terms. Sex would have trivialized their relationship anyway – diminished it, even. They shared something better than that.

But on the day after the jihadists came, there was a change in the air between them. The threat of holy war forced questions about Mike’s self-imposed exile. He didn’t want to talk about it but Areesha refused him the convenience of denial.

“You need to go back, Mike.”

“I can’t.”

“You’re hiding here.”

“Areesha, I love you,” he said.

“I love you, Mike. But there’s no future for us. You know this. You will never be Yshian. Our time together has been so wonderful for me. But we’ve been playing, like kids – that’s all.”

“No… we haven’t,” he protested. Don’t do this.

“We have,” she said. “You might stay another nine months, but to what end? Your friends need you. The people in the pyramid need you.”

“I thought you wanted a chance to convert me,” he said.

“I know you abhor Yshlim,” she said. “There’s no path for you here in the Emirates.”

“So you want me to go back to help my people against a jihad that you hope will defeat them.”

“I want you where you belong,” said Areesha. “Life and death are the same, Mike. Be at peace with that. Always remember me. I’ll never forget you.”

They both cried then as they held each other, knowing he would be off the next day.

 

 

Next Chapter: Torn Asunder

(Previous Chapter: Warriors of the Eternal Truth)

The Lost City: Warriors of the Eternal Truth

This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.

                                     The Lost City — Chapter Twelve:

                   Warriors of the Eternal Truth

 

 

The shakes were bad, the panic attacks worse. And now these goddamn nightmares.

He dreamt that he was back in Hawkins, eating breakfast with Jonathan. Eggs, sausage, toast; his brother’s cooking, which was almost as good as his mother’s, less the helicopter nagging that came with it. Mom’s plate sat on the table waiting. She had slept late and was throwing on clothes. Had to be at work soon.

Jonathan was surly, saying how everyone at school thought he was a freak. Will – who for some reason couldn’t taste the sausage he was eating – told Jonathan that wasn’t how he saw him. Jonathan looked at him warily: “How do you see me, Will?”

“With that ugly eye of his,” said his mother, sliding into her seat across from Will. “Look at it,” she picked up her fork and pointed it at him. “It’s bloated, bloodshot, and doesn’t blink. When he sees you, it’s through the lens of a monster. It’s how he sees me.”

Will felt like a monster. He knew the Eye made his face look like a Halloween mask, but this wasn’t how he saw his mom and brother. For that matter, he couldn’t see them at all. The Eye didn’t show anything from his home world. This scene was impossible; a dream. And I am terrified.

Jonathan and his mother were eating ravenously now, jabbing knives and forks into their eggs and sausage patties. Will tried to rouse himself. Wake up. But the dream held him down. His breakfast plate didn’t smell good anymore. It was spoiling before his eyes. The eggs had turned green (like in the Dr. Seuss book) and the sausages were bleeding. Will didn’t care about the food. He just wanted to talk – to Jonathan, and especially to mom. He hadn’t seen them in years… no, not that long, but it felt that long when you experienced everything, in all times, like a god.

Mom wouldn’t look at him as she fed her face. With her mouth full she ranted at Jonathan: “He’s a monster and murderer. I raised a psychopath for a son. A monster and maniac. Look what I raised.” She pointed at Will, furious: “Look what I raised! Look at that thing!”

Jonathan was banging his knife and fork on his plate, as if trying to ward off his mother’s wrath with a cacophonous drum solo. He began crying and called himself a freak.

“Stop your sniveling!” screamed his mother. Without warning she hurled her knife sideways. It hit the kitchen window and shattered it. “Your brother is the freak! Look at him!” She brought up her fork and plunged it down into the table top, where it stood vibrating like an accusation. “Look at him!” she repeated. “He’s a monster and he’ll kill everyone he sees! Everyone!”

Will shook his head, trying to will away the scene. Stop seeing them. Wake up. He was in bed. Not this perverted kitchen.

“Everyone! Everywhere!” yelled his mother, standing up, and clearly about to do something dramatic. “My Will! He’ll destroy the world if I don’t destroy him, Jonathan!”

Mom! No -!

Mom seized her breakfast plate and with the might of a Maiden winged it like a frisbee. Will gaped as it smashed into his head and threw him backwards in his chair. He fell to the floor and – and –

 

– and screamed as he sat up in bed. Sweating and breathing hard. He hoped none of the Magi had heard him. He looked with his Eye: they were all asleep down the hall. In sweeter dreams.

He sat for a while, crying. For the family he would never see again, and for the destructive person he’d become. The mother in his dream was a virulent fiction, but she was right about one thing: he had an awful power he couldn’t control.

He lay back down, scared of closing his right eye. He needed more sleep but feared more nightmares. He wanted his mother – his real mother, who loved him unconditionally – but she was out of reach. In the days following Lucas’s death and Mike’s flight into the desert, Will had asked Dustin to send him back to Hawkins with the “Black Passage” spell. He’d had enough, period, and was hoping that the Eye’s powers and painful effects would be nullified in his home world. He’d seen the future, of course, and some of those visions showed him playing a role in what was coming for Cynidicea. But he was in no mood to respect fate. He was a kid who wanted his mother.

The spell hadn’t worked. Dustin recited the incantation twice, just to be sure, but Will didn’t go anywhere. The store clerk had either lied about how often the spell could be used (every 28 days, supposedly), or it worked in one direction only.

Probably the latter. The resurrection (“Zoombie”) spell had worked since Demetrius first used it to raise Lucas’s twelve-year old body. A month later he had resurrected a child in the Usamigaran stronghold (who fell from the fortress wall), and then months after that a Cynidicean man (who was killed in the street by a drunkard). So the scroll spells were clearly reusable.

Lucas could have been raised a second time, if Kanadius had agreed to it. He had rejected Demetrius’s request for Lucas’s severed corpse, still believing resurrection to be questionable. There was some difference of opinion among the remaining Brothers, but Kanadius wouldn’t risk it without a clear sign from Gorm. The deity had chosen Lucas once, and Lucas had seemed to fulfill his special role. As an exemplar of warrior integrity, he made the ultimate sacrifice: allowing his best friend to strike him down, so that a fellow Brother could be saved. There was no reason, said Kanadius, for Lucas to cheat death a second time. And no one knew where the Brothers had buried Lucas.

Nor did Will. His Eye had nothing to say on the subject. Will couldn’t always See his Hawkins friends. It had to do with them being other-worldly; the Eye was native to this world. On top of that, Mike’s future was especially hard to See since he fully bonded with the Hand. Somehow the Hand obscured future Sight, or alternatively, wearing the Hand in itself made Mike’s future indeterminate.

Mike, he thought. I miss home. Your basement. The four of us. Our games. Real D&D isn’t fun. I remember being happy but forget what happiness was.

Drifting back to sleep, he thought of Mike’s basement. His dreams weren’t as bad this time.

 

A few hours later, he woke. He lay for a few minutes, dreading the day ahead of him. It would be a long one.

He rose from bed feeling like a cripple. Which he essentially was; Auriga had reforged him on the Isle. But in the four months without Lucas and Mike, he’d become worse than a cripple. He was managing his headaches but paid for it in the other ways – the shakes, the panic attacks, the goddamn nightmares.

Will Byers was a drug addict.

He reached for the peach fuzz, on the stand by his bed. He always kept a supply within reach, and many more of the mushrooms were in his desk. 400 gold pieces a head. One every morning, one before bed. An expensive habit, but he would have killed himself otherwise. The headaches were a knife, twisting inside him. The grade-1 healing mushrooms neutralized pain. Not completely in his case: this was the Eye of Gaius, after all. Its effects could be dampened only to a point. But the drugs made it bearable. The knife went away and left a dull throbbing that lasted for most of the day. The second shroom at night let him sleep – with nightmares instead of pain. Cut off the nose, spite the face. The addict’s burden.

A burden that Mike and Jilanka escaped, but not me.

For the millionth time, Will resented the fact that Mike and his lady friend had used drugs to “shag each other to kingdom come” – as Dustin put it – without addiction worries. How nice. Will wasn’t interested in recreation. He just needed his headaches to go away. He had worked with Demetrius to procure healing mushrooms, and they had put Jilanka’s theory to the test. He tried all sorts of combinations with the grade-1 healing shrooms – other healing shrooms, acid trips, sedatives, amphetamines. None of the combos cancelled addiction, and none enabled him to turn the effects on and off with his mind. Demetrius thought Will’s mind had been compromised by the Eye, and Jilanka opined that his body was too frail to fend off addiction, but they were both passing gas. The answer was shown by the Eye when Will probed deeper with his omniscience: it was the nature of the healing mushrooms. They were the functional inverse of poison shrooms, healing instead of killing, and like the poisons could not be used in conjunction with other kinds to produce combo benefits. Anyone taking a poison would die. Anyone relying on healing was subject to addiction. No way around it.

Even Demetrius’s prayers were useless. The priest would need to cast two prayers – cure disease and neutralize poison – on Will every day to keep him free of addiction, and people down in the Usamigaran community relied on those prayers. Disease was common in the undercity. Demetrius couldn’t be Will’s special savior.

The Zargonites were his saviors. Their gardens; the peach-colored shrooms. William Byers, the most powerful being in Cynidicea, was as much a slave to addiction as most residents of the undercity.

It took a while for the drug to kick in. When the pain was negligible, Will got busy preparing himself for a day of fireworks.

 

They started filing into his chamber early that afternoon. The cult leaders of the old gods. For the first time in ages, the leaders of the three cults would sit together as equals, and debate the fate of the Lost City.

Will knew that fate was grim, but his Eye showed alternate ways of it playing out. Things weren’t entirely hopeless. The trick was to get these loggerheads to put aside their differences and band against the real enemy. Which wasn’t the Zargonites.

Pandora and Fiana arrived, joining him and Demetrius. Fiana was the high priestess of the Madaruan stronghold, and completely humorless, though less combative than Pandora.

It was a miracle they had all agreed to this meeting. Will had summoned them only yesterday, and had arranged for the Magi to bring into his room a round table, so that everyone sat as an implied equal. A feeble gesture, truly. As if Arthurian intentions could paper over centuries of resentments and ill will. And Will was no mediator. He was relying on Demetrius to build bridges here today.

Dustin was always good at that too. Reconciliations. Dustin and Demetrius’s personalities had blended significantly over seven months. Either one of them could have run this meeting better than he was about to.

Finally the Gormish representatives entered and sat. Everyone was present: Kanadius and Zoran for Gorm; Pandora and Fiana for Madarua; Will and Demetrius for Usamigaras. Temple leader and high priest; pyramid and city stronghold. Raen was the high priest for Usamigaras but had sent Demetrius in his place, given Demetrius/Dustin’s close ties to Will. That was a problem right off the bat.

“Where’s Raen?” demanded Kanadius.

“Raen sent me to represent him,” said Demetrius.

“Already I don’t like this,” said Kanadius, looking at Will. “Demetrius is your friend, and you’re the one who called this emergency meeting. It smacks of personal agenda, whatever we’re here for.”

“Demetrius is in the dark as much as the rest of you,” said Will, ignoring everyone’s stares. He was used to it. His Eye made him look monstrous. Especially as a child. “I’ve told him nothing yet.”

“So you say,” retorted the Grand Master.

“Honestly, Kanadius,” said Demetrius, “can we not kill this meeting before it starts? All of us have equal voting power at this meeting. Each cult has two members. There’s nothing sinister going on here. Don’t manufacture offense.”

“I agree,” said Fiana, before Kanadius could flame Demetrius. “Let’s get on with it. I want Will to explain why he called this emergency meeting. And I hope he has a very good reason.”

“We’re about to be invaded,” said Will.

They stared at him, incredulous.

“Invaded?” said Zoran. “You mean desert marauders? The pyramid entrance takes care of intruders.”

“No, not marauders,” said Will. “I mean a real army. A huge army. An army that has no concept of surrender. They’d be just as happy to die trying to conquer the Lost City as they would to conquer it.”

Pandora laughed. “Then they’ll get their wish!”

“I said a huge army,” said Will. “About a thousand. How many warriors and magi and priests can fight for the old cults? About sixty, right?”

That silenced the table.

Demetrius finally spoke. “Seriously, Will, an army of a thousand? Where the hell are they coming from. Cynidicea is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest major town is, like, forty miles away.”

“Distance means nothing to this army. They’d march three hundred miles to wipe out unbelievers. And that’s what we are: unbelievers who don’t follow the religion of the surface land.”

Fiana was shaking her head. “Wait a minute. How do they suddenly know of us?”

“More importantly, who are they?” asked Zoran. “We know nothing about the surface world or what goes on up there. Our history books stop over eleven hundred years ago.” The cults of the old gods had taken care to preserve their history. Each had an impressive library in the underground strongholds. Their ancestors had salvaged all the books they could when the surface city fell to invaders over a millennium ago. But that history was literally all ancient. It stopped in the year 98 BC, when the surface city of Cynidicea was sacked and burned.

“What’s there to know?” said Pandora. “Invaders are invaders.”

“The surface desert is – or was – a land called Ylaruam,” said Demetrius. “But who knows what Ylaruam is like today. I’ve a feeling you’re going to tell us, Will.”

“For one thing, it’s no longer Ylaruam,” said Will. “It’s Yshia. The Emirates of Yshia. Six emirates under control of a ruling Caliph in the city of Yshia, which used to be Ylaruam City.”

Kanadius shrugged. “Names change. Who cares?”

“Everyone cared when it happened,” said Will. “It was a little over two centuries ago, and the Alasiyan Desert hasn’t gotten any peace since. Except for a small time recently. But as of last year, everything’s back to warfare again, and it’s not pretty. At all.”

“You’ll have to give us the details, Will,” said Demetrius. “A solid history lesson. We don’t have your god’s eye view of the world.”

“Make it fast,” said Pandora. “I didn’t come here to be lectured.”

“Nor I,” said Kanadius.

“Actually,” said Zoran, “I’m with Demetrius. Look at this practically. We’ve always been chafing at our ignorance of the world our ancestors come from. Will’s knowledge is something we should be using. Why else did we go the Isle to retrieve the Eye?”

“Fine,” said Fiana, looking at Will. “Tell us, little man. What’s the world like on the surface?”

Will took a deep breath and began. It was a tale of a mad prophet, who turned his nation into a land of holy war and terror. Who made life oppressive in all ways, especially for women. And who mandated a death sentence for anyone who did not follow the religion he established. Will was a terrible speaker, and was rudely cut off and barraged with questions. Demetrius refereed the table as best he could. In the end, everyone was properly educated. And seriously alarmed.

The gist of Will’s spiel went as follows:

The desert land of Yshia consists of six emirates: Alasiya (the largest), Abbashan (the fiercest), Nithia (the oldest), Nicostenia (at the coast), Dythestenia (the remotest), and Makistan (with grasslands and steppes). Cynidicea is technically in Makistan, but right on the border of Alasiya. Not that it matters. Everyone in the Emirates has always believed that Cynidicea is an abandoned ruins. It’s been abandoned since it was destroyed in 98 BC. 1154 years ago. No one on the surface has had a clue about the underground city, or that descendants of the ancient Cynidicean kingdom still exist.

Until now, that is.

The important thing to understand, emphasized Will, is that all of these tribal peoples – the Alasiyans, Abbashanians, Nithians, Nicostenians, Dythestenians, and Makistanians – are first and foremost Yshians, before any of their particular nationalities. For the past 225 years, they have all shared the same over-arching belief: that there are no gods, only the Eternal Truth; and that al-Kalim was the Prophet who revealed that Truth. Anyone who rejects the Prophet’s religion is an infidel, to be converted or slain. The Eternal Truth is thoroughly militant and oppressive. It’s the religion of Yshlim.

“So what?” interrupted Kanadius. “We have our own nasty oppressors. The Zargonites.”

Not quite the same thing, said Will. To understand it all, you have to go back to the Prophet. Al-Kalim.

He was a fanatic who single-handedly changed the culture of the Alasiyan Desert. He was from the city of Abbashan, born in 770 AC. This was back when the desert was the nation of Ylaruam, and much more peaceful. Al-Kalim began receiving visions in his forties and in his fifties became a militant warrior bent on subjugating all of Ylaruam to what he understood as proper Truth. He led inhumane raids, and in 824 AC, when he was 54, he captured the village of Ylaruam and established it as his tribal seat. Over the next two years, other towns – Cinsa-Men-Noo, Parsa, and Ctesiphon, etc. – all fell and al-Kalim united the Makistani and Alasiyan tribes under the banner of the Eternal Truth. Then he took his holy war to the Empire. By 831 AC, every single Thyatian overlord had been thrown out. That was the year he founded the Confederated Tribes of the Emirates of Yshia – which is what the capital city has been called ever since. 225 years ago.

“There’s nothing special about a religion based on warfare,” said Pandora. “I lead a war cult. So does Kanadius.”

Again, not the same thing. You and your Maidens don’t forcibly convert those of different faiths. You don’t systematically butcher those who refuse to convert. You don’t live in a constant state of holy war. You aren’t commanded by your holy book to subjugate the world under your beliefs, on pain of death, and to murder those who step slightly out of line. Neither are you, Kanadius, or your Brothers. The Creed of Gorm and The Circle of Madarua aren’t like The Raysh.

“The Raysh is the holy book of Yshlim?” asked Demetrius.

Yes. And the Raysh requires jihad, holy war, against all peoples who reject the Eternal Truth. Jihad isn’t optional, nor is it restricted to the warrior class. It’s binding on every able-bodied male in the Emirates. To kill and/or be killed while fighting a jihad is the highest glory meriting the highest reward in paradise.

“I assume the Yshians have priests who peddle this fanaticism?” asked Fiana.

The Yshian clerics are called mullahs and they hold authority over warriors. They run the courts like inquisitions. They answer only to the Caliph at Yshia. The caliphs are the Prophet’s successors; there have been nineteen caliphs since al-Kalim’s death in 842. They have – every single one of them – been cold-blooded tyrants.

“Well,” said Demetrius, “I’ll never complain about life underground again. The surface sounds like hell. People have lived like that? For two centuries?”

Except for a brief respite, said Will. And a rather amazing one. Just fifteen years ago, in 1041 AC, the Caliphate was abolished and a Council of Preceptors took control of Yshia. The Preceptors nominally followed the Yshlimic religion, but so loosely that it could hardly be called Yshlim without winking too broadly. The Preceptors were in favor of modern and cosmopolitan values. They believed foreigners should be tolerated and allowed their religious beliefs. They controlled four of the emirates, including the largest and most important one of Alasiya. Only in Abbashan and Nithia was Yshlim still strictly observed and enforced by the state. The four liberated emirates began to welcome ideas from the outside world, especially from urban and mercantile cultures. The Council of Preceptors outlawed jihads; it decreed holy war to be an antiquated concept – even though the Raysh said it was mandatory, and even though the Prophet had established jihad as an absolute pillar of the Eternal Truth.

The Preceptors ignored most of the Raysh. They picked from the Prophet’s teachings whatever could be bent to serve a modern outlook – which wasn’t a hell of a lot. The “Yshlim” they ended up advocating was a religion so massively truncated that it was dishonest to even call it Yshlim. The Preceptors had removed so many essential doctrines that it killed the patient. Conservative mullahs led movements of protest; jihadists committed acts of terror.

Fiana interjected: “I have a feeling, Will, that you’re about to tell us the wonderful liberation didn’t last.”

It lasted for thirteen years. Then in 1054, the Preceptors were overthrown by the army of a fierce emir who came to power in Abbashan. The emir’s name was Sayid al-Naji, and his jihad swept over the four emirates like the Nine Hells come to earth. Yshia City fell to the jihad, the Council was abolished, and the strict observance of Yshlim returned to the Emirates of Nicostenia, and Alasiya. Then, in 1055, the jihad came west to Makistan, and south to Dythestenia. Those emirates were taken that year and Yshlimic Law was once again enforced everywhere in the land. Sayid al-Naji became the twentieth Caliph of Yshia.

“That was just last year,” said Demetrius. “When you and your friends came to the Lost City.”

“Yes,” concluded Will. “The last major town – a town called Warqa – was being sacked when we arrived. Even though it surrendered. The rape and murder was really bad.”

They got the point by now: Yshlim was systemically oppressive and unflaggingly expansionist. It required devout Yshians to wage war on unbelievers anywhere, and subjugate them under the boot of a dark-age tyranny.

“But the jihad is over, right?” asked Zoran. “All the Emirates are subjugated again.”

“The jihad is never over,” said Will. “The duty to wage war in Yshlim always goes on. It will push into other countries eventually. But even this particular jihad – Sayid al-Naji’s war – is still in its mop-up stages. The Caliph is finally turning his eye to Cynidicea. In about two weeks we’re going to have warriors of the Eternal Truth knocking on our door.”

Kanadius laughed. “Let them knock. That pyramid entrance is a death trap. Even for an army.”

“I’m not talking about the pyramid entrance,” said Will.

“What do you mean?” asked Demetrius.

“I’m talking about the hidden tunnel entrances that lead straight into the underground city,” said Will.

“How the hell would they know about those?” demanded Fiana.

Breathe deep. “Mike.”

They stared at him appalled. Then Kanadius slammed his fist on the table. “What a fucking surprise! Are there any limits to what that treasonous shit will do?”

“Watch your mouth, Grand Master,” said Pandora. “What Mike did in your temple wasn’t treason. It was the lesser of two evils.”

“Let’s not relive that,” said Will, cutting off these two before they came to blows. “We can’t fault Mike too much for mentioning the hidden entrances. At the time he had no reason to expect any blowback. He knew nothing about the Yshian people – nothing about jihad, or that Yshlim requires conquering unbelievers everywhere. He was three weeks in the desert, and had just been taken in by a family. All he did was tell his hosts where he came from. They were fascinated to learn about a civilization in Cynidicea, and Mike described it to them, not realizing that gossip would eventually find the wrong ears.”

“But why the hidden entrances?” said Kanadius, livid. “Why did he have to reveal something like that?”

Will shrugged. “Like I said, he was in a no-man’s land. He still is there, with the same family. He was careless.”

“How did he even survive the first three weeks?” asked Zoran. “Before being taken in by this family? As I understand it, he left abruptly – into the desert with no food or water. Or weapons, for that matter.”

“He wears the Hand of Gaius,” said Will. He had told Pandora this months ago, when she came to him after Mike’s departure. “On his second day he was attacked by desert marauders, and he killed them all with his bare hands. He took one of their swords, one of their camels, and all their money. He lived hand to mouth traveling northeast, crossing from Makistan into Alasiya, stopping at villages and paying for his upkeep. Soon he bought a horse and traded in the camel.”

“He hates himself,” said Demetrius. “He’ll never forgive himself for killing Lucas.”

“Don’t even start,” said Kanadius.

“Eventually,” said Will, “something happened right outside one of the villages he was passing – it’s between thirty and forty miles away from us – and a family ended up taking him in.” Will wasn’t about to explain that ugly affair.

“I know I’ve asked you this before,” said Demetrius, “but is Mike ever coming back to us?”

Will shrugged. His Eye still showed different outcomes on the question of Mike’s return to the Lost City. Mike was hard to See.

“Let me be clear on this point,” said Kandius. “The Brotherhood has a claim on Mike Wheeler. He is under sentence of execution, and I intend to carry that out if he ever comes back.”

Pandora reared like a viper. “Lay a hand on my Maiden, Grand Master, and I’ll feed you your balls. Mike Wheeler is no longer yours to claim.”

“He most certainly is mine to claim,” said Kanadius. “He violated the sanctum of our temple and killed half my warriors, including our chosen prophet Lucas Sinclair – who also happened to be Mike’s best friend. He was one of us for three months. You owned him for three days. All of that makes him mine to claim. Your opinions about lesser evils are meaningless.”

“I have owned Mike Wheeler for the past four months,” said Pandora. “Just because he is in some self-imposed exile doesn’t mean he has renounced the Maidens.” She looked at Will. “Has he renounced us?”

Will shook his head. “No. He still considers himself loyal to Madarua.”

“Well, there you have it,” said Pandora.

“I don’t give a mound of feces in Zargon’s shithole what Mike considers himself,” said Kanadius. “His crimes demand satisfaction.”

“I agree,” said Zoran. “I’m sorry, Will, and I’m sorry, Dustin – I assume Dustin can hear this, Demetrius. I loved Mike. The kids at the stronghold loved him. But his deeds speak for themselves.”

“I don’t know why Will and Dustin would want an apology from us,” said Kanadius. “We’re honoring Lucas. Lucas was their friend, as much as Mike is.” He addressed Will and Demetrius. “How do you both feel about what Mike did to Lucas? Keep in mind that he was begging me to kill him – he knew what he deserved – before running off.”

Demetrius spoke first. “Dustin has made it clear to me that he objects to executing Mike for something he never planned to do -”

“Never planned?” said Kanadius.

“Let me rephrase,” said the priest. “Something he regretted having to do, lest he become a moral monster for the rest of his life. Five people had to die. It was that simple.”

“A warrior of integrity would kill himself if faced with those options,” said Zoran.

“But then the Hand would have become useless,” said Demetrius. “We knew the risks when we gambled on Gaius’s curses. You knew the risks, Kanadius, and accepted them.”

“Don’t put words in my mouth, Demetrius. Yes, I accepted the risks, not knowing what they were. And if I had been the Hand wielder faced with that decision, I would have – as Zoran said – cut the Hand off and killed myself.”

“Good for you,” said Demetrius. “But I suggest you get over your feelings for Mike Wheeler.”

“How is my Maiden getting along with this Yshian family?” asked Pandora.

“He’s about to be confronted by jihadists,” said Will. “They’re coming to get him now, as we speak. They know he’s the source of the rumors about the Lost City, and as I mentioned, the Caliph wants to know if these rumors are true. The jihadists will arrive at the home he’s staying in five days.”

“That would solve our problem,” said Kanadius. “I hope they kill him. You said it’s an instant death sentence for anyone who doesn’t believe in Yshlim?”

Will nodded. “More or less. Unless the person converts, or pays a special tax and is willing to be treated little better than a slave.”

The Grand Master laughed in disgust. “Knowing Mike, he’ll convert. He changes allegiances like the rest of us change clothes.”

“He won’t convert,” said Will. “He’s lived with the Yshians long enough now to know that he hates the Yshlimic religion with a passion. As I said, he’s loyal to Madarua.”

“Of course he is,” said Pandora venomously. “He renounced the Brotherhood for the best of reasons. And he killed five of his former Brothers for better reasons.”

Kanadius threw back his chair furiously and stood up. “I’ll kill you right now, woman.”

“I can easily beat you, old man,” said Madarua’s Champion, unfazed.

Kanadius laughed. “Then stand up and let’s find out. I’ve never been beaten by a stupid woman in my whole life.”

Will honestly wasn’t sure which of these two would win in a heads-up match. He probed possible outcomes with his Eye, and they all showed about an even fifty-fifty chance for either one.

“I’d rather you guys not try to kill each other,” said Demetrius. “We need all the strength we can muster against the Yshians.”

“Agreed,” said Pandora. “Kanadius is just being childish.”

“And you,” said Kanadius trenchantly, “are a flippant bitch who needs smacking down.” He sat back down in disgust.

“I wonder, Kanadius,” said Pandora. “Perhaps you’re the one who should switch allegiances. If the Yshians treat women so badly, as Will says, you’d fit in well with them.”

“It’s probably their one good trait,” retorted Kanadius. “If they know how to keep their women in place.”

“You both have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Will.

“Don’t lecture me, boy,” snapped Pandora.

“Pandora, whatever you think of Gormish chauvinism, I assure you it’s nothing compared to how the Yshians treat their women. The Yshians are inhumane. They even remove the – I think the word is ‘clits’ – from women’s vaginas, so they can’t enjoy sex.”

Everyone at the table gaped at him. Then Fiana laughed. “You don’t need to scare us with propaganda, Will. We get the message. The invaders need to be taken seriously.”

Will sighed. “I’m not lying about anything I say.”

Demetrius made a face. “You’re saying that Yshian women have their clits cut out as a matter of general policy?”

“Yes.”

“That’s absolutely absurd,” boomed Zoran.

“It’s absolutely barbaric,” said Pandora.

“I don’t believe it,” said Kanadius. “It’s too off the scales. It’s like Zargonite sacrifice, but mainstreamed into society.”

Will explained: “It’s a mandatory rite for all women in the strictest emirates – Abbashan and Nithia – and it’s encouraged in the other four as well, in varying degrees. In those four places, on average, one out of three women have their clits cut out.”

“Unbelievable,” said Demetrius. “Is this rite required by the holy book? The Raysh?”

“If the Raysh required it, it would be mandatory everywhere, like the jihad,” said Will. “It’s required by supplementary religious texts.”

“Speaking of the Zargonites,” said Demetrius. “What about them? I mean, that’s really why we’re here, isn’t it?”

Will nodded.

“What do you mean?” asked Fiana.

“I mean putting aside our differences,” said Demetrius. “Suspending our hatreds. But that starts at home. With us first. We serve the old gods. We have to be better than we’ve been for the past millennium. The three cults used to be as one in the days of the kingdom. We need to reattain that unity. Kanadius, Pandora, I’m looking at you.”

“But that’s still only a fighting force of sixty,” reminded Will. “To have any hope of stopping an army of a thousand, we need more than just our unity.” Breathe again. “We need the Zargonites.”

Will knew that Demetrius was smart enough to have seen that coming, but the other four were aghast.

“You aren’t serious!” said Fiana. She looked at Will like he was retarded.

“My understanding,” said Pandora, “is that your Eye can unleash manifold destruction. Why do we need a fighting force at all?”

“It’s not that simple,” said Will. He’d seen alternative visions of him using the Eye against the jihadists, and none of them were pleasant. “I can’t summon the death-scream at will, and I have little control over who or what it destroys. In one of my visions I brought down the roof of the underground city. I buried and killed us all.”

“Well, yeah, that’s a problem,” said Demetrius.

Kanadius swore. “Will is right, unfortunately. Only the Zargonites have the numbers to fend off a thousand warriors. But that’s making a deal with the worst devil.”

“The Yshians are the worst devil,” said Will.

“So you say,” said Fiana.

“I’m telling you truth. The Eye doesn’t lie.”

“Let’s put it to a vote,” said Demetrius. “I vote that we ally with each other, and that we ask the Zargonites for a temporary alliance.”

“And I,” said Will.

“And I,” said Kanadius.

“And I,” said Zoran.

“And I,” said Pandora.

“And I,” said Fiana. “Provided the Zargonites agree to treat us as co-equals in this alliance. Just because they have the numbers doesn’t mean Hazor becomes our supreme commander.”

“Agreed,” said Will.

“There is also the matter of Mike,” said Kanadius. “I vote for his execution, if and when he returns.”

“And I,” said Zoran.

“Not I,” said Pandora, seething.

“Not I,” said Fiana.

“Not I,” said Demetrius.

“Not I,” said Will.

Kanadius was sour. “Don’t expect me to ever be in the same room with him.”

“And which of us is going into the lion’s den to beseech Hazor?” asked Zoran. Hazor was the High Priest of Zargon: ruthless, sadistic, and insane. “He certainly won’t agree to come to us.”

“Step into the Zargonite temple?” asked Fiana. “Talk about taking one for the team. I’m not going inside that building.”

“I don’t think you should,” said Demetrius. “You’re a priestess. Zoran and I shouldn’t either. As clerics of the old gods, we could all be vulnerable in that place.”

“I’ll do it,” said Will. He knew he would anyway. He had seen it. “Kanadius? Pandora? Will you come with me?”

“To the temple of Zargon?” asked Pandora. She shrugged. “Fine by me.”

“Of course,” said Kanadius. “It should be the three of us. The leaders of our temples.”

“I can count on you both? To suspend your hatred for each other?”

“Oh, I don’t hate this bitch, Will,” said Kanadius. “I just want to see her beaten and broken. One day I’ll teach her that humility. But not today. Nor anytime soon. I know where my duty lies at the moment.”

“Pay him no mind, little man,” said Pandora. “Kanadius just wants to fuck me. He’s never gotten laid. I can’t waste hate on someone like that. He needs pity – and he certainly has mine.”

Kanadius shouted, purple with rage: “If you think you can -”

“Yes, thank you,” said Will. “Both of you. I’m sure you’ll be models of diplomacy.”

“When are you going?” asked Demetrius.

“We should try to secure an audience with Hazor in the next couple of days,” said Will. “The Yshians will be here in two weeks. I called this meeting as soon as the Eye showed no future alternatives to the invasion.”

Demetrius mused. “If we collapsed the hidden entrances…”

Zoran was shaking his head. “We need those as emergency escape routes. We can’t rely on the pyramid as our only access point to the surface.”

“And we can’t ambush them outside the hidden entrances,” said Kanadius. “It’s all open desert out there, and we’re Cynidiceans. We can’t fight to save ourselves in sunlight. The only way to defeat these invaders is to ambush them as they come into the city. I mean, they don’t know that we know they’re coming. Right?”

Will nodded. “We should have the element of surprise.”

“Unless,” said Pandora, “they worry that Mike might try to come and warn us.” She looked at Will. “You said they’re going to reach him in five days?”

“Yes,” said Will. “But Mike’s future has become so jumbled in my vision it’s impossible to say what he’ll do. Ever since he was fully bonded with the Hand – the day he left us – he’s been hard for me to See.”

“He belongs with the Maidens,” said Pandora. “I hope he remembers himself in the end.”

Kanadius had the grace to hold his tongue.

“All right, then,” said Will. “Thank you all for coming and agreeing to this. The three of us will go down to the city as soon – or if – Hazor agrees to meet with us.” And then things will really get interesting.

As the Gorm and Madarua representatives left, his shakes started in. He wasn’t going to make it to bedtime for the peach fuzz.

“Well played, Byers.”

“What?” He looked at Demetrius, who had stayed behind. No, not Demetrius. That’s Dustin now. The priest had retreated to lurker mode so the friends could spend time together.

“You lead better than most,” said Dustin.

Will shook his head. “I don’t think so. I just know more. I wish I didn’t.” His headache was also rousing from slumber. He needed an early fix. “Can you hand me that?” he asked Dustin, pointing to the bowl of peach colored mushrooms on the bed stand.

“Yeah.” He passed the bowl to Will.

Will’s hand jerked suddenly as he took it, and the bowl crashed to the floor. The mushrooms, four of them, scattered in different directions.

“Got it, don’t worry,” said Dustin, reaching over to pick everything up.

When the shrooms were on the table, Will took one and ate it fast. He closed his eyes as he tried to chew slowly, telling the fifteen minutes to hurry up. He hated his addiction; his tolerance was getting worse.

Dustin was concerned. “Do you need rest, Will? I can go.”

Will shook his head, swallowing. “I want you to stay. I miss talking to you. About home.”

“Yeah,” said Dustin. “I wish I’d never gone into Rotten Gargoyle that day. Never seen that store clerk. I mean, there are things I’ve liked about sharing my body and life with a priest like Demetrius. He’s a great guy. But Jesus Christ, look what it’s cost us all.”

They talked for hours, and then finally Demetrius took over and left for the city.

That night, Will went to bed thinking of Zenobia’s crypt. And the Isle of Death. When the dreams came, they weren’t of his mother and Jonathan. They were of friends dead and undead. And every bit as hurtful.

 

Next Chapter: The Jihad of Sayid al-Naji

(Previous Chapter: Farewell, Friend)

Review: The Averoigne Archives

The verdict is in: the tales of Averoigne are my favorite pulp fantasies after Stormbringer. And since the Elric novel is in a rather exceptional deified category, that’s saying quite a lot. Why it’s taken me decades to read Clark Ashton Smith, I don’t know. Probably because I could never locate a copy of the Averoigne stories when I tried.

I’ve known Averoigne — experienced it even — through the D&D module Castle Amber. Exactly 40 years ago, in 1981, I went to Averoigne as a mage, and had to keep my spells under wraps lest I fell prey to the inquisition. In the D&D game, Averoigne is lifted right from the stories of Clark Ashton Smith: a province in a parallel world similar to medieval France, but where magic is real and considered to be an evil pagan practice. Clerics (priests and bishops) don’t cast spells, and spell casters in general are viewed with suspicion and subject to arrest by the church authorities.

Of course, Smith wrote his stories long before D&D was a thing. The Averoigne tales were published between 1930-1941. But he may as well have been gazing into the late ’70s and early ’80s. Averoigne is practically a blueprint for a D&D campaign setting.

What Smith actually intended Averoigne to be was a fantasy version of the province of Auvergne in particular, with the capital Vyones standing for Clermont (where the First Crusade was preached), and St. Flour the most likely analog for Ximes. According to Glenn Rahman:

“Smith’s Averoigne was an isolated mountain country covered by magical forests and springs, a center of Druidic worship from time immemorial. In the medieval period its castles were peopled by witches and monsters. This description fits the fact and folklore of Auvergne better than any other part of the French landscape. Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine, likewise forested and remote, yet fail to make a convincing match. Eastern France has always stood at the crossroads of Latin and Germanic culture and of political disturbance. Provincial Auvergne, in the quiet center of France, is much more in the spirit of Smith’s creation. Moreover, the story ‘The Maker of Gargoyles’ implies the proximity of Averoigne and Provence. A glance at the map will show that Auvergne abuts upon Provence.

How do the geographies of Auvergne and Averoigne compare? Vyônes, the capital of Averoigne, must be identified with the chief city of Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand. Like Vyônes, Clermont-Ferrand stands at the heart of the province and boasts of an excellent cathedral—although, unlike Vyônes, Clermont-Ferrand does not house an archbishop. The town of Ximes, often mentioned by Smith, should be sought in one of Auvergne’s other cathedral towns—St. Flour or Le Puy. Of the two, St. Flour’s claim is favored, since, like Ximes, it is also the site of a Benedictine abbey.

The Benedictines were preeminent in both Averoigne and Auvergne. Smith but seldom mentions any other order, and while Perrnonstratensian, Cistercian and Augustine monasteries flourished the length and breadth of medieval France, all the great abbeys of Auvergne were Benedictine. Smith’s Périgon Abbey, the setting of several stories, is to be identified with either Aurillac or La Chaise Dieu, both monastery towns. La Chaise Dieu’s claim is stronger because, like Périgon, the associated town was comparatively small. Furthermore, La Chaise Dieu’s higher prestige in Auvergne rivals Périgon’s eminence in Averoigne.

Averoigne’s physical geography also reminds us of Auvergne’s. Auvergne is a highland centering upon a wide, volcanic valley. Smith, in ‘The Colossus of Ylourgne,’ mentions the ‘outlying, semi-mountainous hills of Averoigne.’ “

I’ll review each of the stories below. But first, here they are in chronological order — the order presented in the book. I assume that the editors guessed where to fit the stories with unspecified dates.

Mother of Toads
The Maker of Gargoyles – 1138 AD
The Holiness of Azédarac – 1175 AD
A Night in Malnéant
The Colossus of Ylourgne – 1281 AD
The Enchantress of Sylaire
The Beast of Averoigne – 1369 AD
The Mandrakes – 1400s AD
A Rendezvous in Averoigne
The Disinterment of Venus – 1550 AD
The Satyr
The End of the Story – 1789 AD

Now here they are, ranked and reviewed. Don’t read them if you want to avoid spoilers.

1. The Holiness of Azédarac (1175 AD). 5 stars. A tale of heresy, time travel, and forbidden love: a cleric of the inquisition investigates a bishop whom the church suspects is a black sorcerer in league with demons (which is indeed is true). This bishop, Azédarac, realizes he is being spied on, and traps the cleric by sending him back in time 700 years. The cleric finds himself in the year 475 AD, before Christianity became the state religion of France and he falls in love with Azédarac’s arch-enemy Moriamis – a rival sorceress who time-travels and has lived for centuries. He ends up discarding his faith in a pagan-dominated France, but his happy ending with Moriamis comes by her shamelessly manipulating him. Meanwhile in present, Azédarac’s evils go unchecked and unproven, and when he dies many years later he is canonized a saint. Sweet tragedy, bitter injustice, and the best character in the Averoigne series (Moriamis)… I mean, what more can you ask for in a 20-page story?

2. The Beast of Averoigne (1369 AD). 5 stars. I wish I had the chops to write a horror piece like this. Every paragraph drips with gothic menace. The story is told in three parts, first from a Benedictine monk who is later slain by the beast that prowls at night; second from Théophile, the Abbot of Périgon, who turns out to be the actual beast, undergoing a change every night that he can’t remember the next day; and third, the alchemist-hero Luc le Chaudronnier, a white sorcerer whom the Christian authorities turn a blind eye to when he uses magic in the cause against evil. Le Chaudronnier uses an ancient artifact, the Ring of Eibon, to unleash a demon on the beast, and while Théophile’s fate is predictably tragic, he is at least exorcised before he dies. One of Smith’s most famous and cherished stories, and rightly so. First-rate storytelling.

3. The Maker of Gargoyles (1138 AD). 5 stars. Another terrific horror piece, telling of a stone-carver who was commissioned by the archbishop of Vyônes to carve a pair of gargoyles for display on top of the city’s new cathedral. On the face of it, it’s a strange commission given the pious Christian attitudes against demonic creatures, and indeed once the gargoyles go up, the people of Vyônes are appalled at what looks like a horrific sacrilege: “the workman had informed these figures to the glory of Belial rather than of God, and had thus perpetrated a sort of blasphemy; a certain amount of grotesquery was admittedly requisite in gargoyles, but in this case the allowable bounds had been egregiously overpassed”. Vyônes then becomes terrorized, as citizens are murdered savagely in the streets and women are lewdly assaulted. It turns out the gargoyles are the culprits; they come to life periodically, and one of them is a savage killer, the other a lascivious rapist. Awesome story.

4. The Colossus of Ylourgne (1281 AD). 5 stars. The best known Averoigne story delivers a socking punch in the form of the Colossus — an 80-foot tall giant built of human corpses that destroys everything in its path: people, houses, walls, and towers. It’s impossible for me to think of the Colossus without thinking of the season-three Mind Flayer of Stranger Things, and I wonder if the Duffers were inspired by this classic story. But I think even more of the Erol Otus cover of Castle Amber, which has been my interpretation of the Colossus ever since going to Averoigne myself as a D&D character 40 years ago. This is phantasmagoric horror at its best: corpses rising en masse from graveyards, at the summons of a necromancer who molds and reforms them to a hideous purpose in an abandoned castle.

5. The End of the Story (1789 AD). 4 ½ stars. The first published Averoigne story is the one that comes chronologically last, set in the late 18th century, long after the Middle Ages. It has a medieval feel nonetheless, involving an abandoned ruins near Périgon — the ruins of Faussesflammes — which for untold years has been “the haunt of unholy spirits, of witches and demons; and festivals not to be described or even named; no weapon known to man, no exorcism or holy water, has ever prevailed against these demons; some say that the demons are abominable hags whose bodies terminate in serpentine coils; others, that they are women of more than mortal beauty, whose kisses consume the flesh of men with the fierceness of hell-fire”. The story’s protagonist is a law student from northern France visiting Averoigne, and he finds himself drawn inexorably into the castle of Faussesflammes, despite stern warnings from the monks.

6. The Enchantress of Sylaire (early 1300s AD?). 4 ½ stars. This the last Averoigne story Smith wrote; the only one he wrote after the ’30s. (It was published in ’41.) It’s about a hermit named Anselme who has been pining for a ditzy woman who cruelly spurned his romantic intentions. He ends up finding better (or does he?), an enchantress named Sephora who lives in an Otherworld known as Sylaire. She takes him through a magic gate to Sylaire and showers favors on him in her domain, but he later encounters a werewolf who used to be Sephora’s lover before she grew tired of him and cursed him. The werewolf warns Anselme that Sephora is an evil being, and gives him a Mirror of Reality, which reveals all illusions, deceptions, and true intentions. Anselme uses the mirror to see the horrific natures of certain individuals — including the ditz who had scorned him — but the twist ending is a bit of a surprise: he refuses to use the mirror on Sephora, saying that he is “content with what his eyes tell him” in her case. The story ends with them bonding in romance in the fey world of Sylaire, a seemingly happy “fairy tale” ending though it’s probably ultimately a very bad one for Anselme. Considering this is Smith’s last story, I wonder if he had reached a point in his life where he wanted to advocate savoring all the happiness possible, even if that involves turning a blind eye to the inevitable treacheries that happiness may carry.

7. Mother of Toads (early 1100s AD?). 4 stars. The first story in the collection makes for a wonderful entry. Set in the swampy regions of Les Hiboux, it’s about an apothecary’s apprentice who gets seduced and raped by a grossly fat witch. Short and sweet (or not so sweet, as it were) and sets a most appropriate tone for the land of Averoigne. Imagine being molested by a fat sow like this, who had “eyes full-orbed and unblinking as those of a toad; the folds beneath her chin swelled like the throat of some great batrachian; her huge breasts, pale as frog-bellies, bulged from her torn gown; in the hollow of those breasts a moisture glistening like the dew of marshes, like the slime of some amphibian”. The last paragraph of the story is utterly horrifying.

8. The Mandrakes (1400s AD). 4 stars. I’ve found mandrakes creepy since watching Pan’s Labyrinth, but in the wake of this story they freak me out completely. It’s a about a husband and his wife who sell love potions, though the husband is nasty and one day secretly kills his wife and buries her beneath mandrakes out in the meadow. The next season when he digs up the mandrakes over his wife’s grave, he is startled to see the mandrakes having more than the usual vaguely human form; these bear the exact likeness of his wife; the roots squirm and writhe when he holds them, and scream in his wife’s voice when he cuts them. When he uses these mandrakes to make and sell his love potions, they have the adverse effect: “Husbands were turned against wives, lasses against their lovers, with speeches of bitter hate and scathful deeds. A certain young gallant who had gone to the promised rendezvous was met by a vengeful madwoman, who tore his face into bleeding shreds with her nails.” At least this son of a bitch gets his just deserts in the end.

9. The Disinterment of Venus (1550 AD). 3 ½ stars. Smith’s scathing satire on prudishness. When the monks of Périgon Abbey dig up a statue of Venus in their vegetable garden, they become absolutely sex-crazed. Many are brought before the abbot and found guilty of open lechery. Some have sexually harassed the local peasant women, and others outright raped them. In rage one of the self-righteous monks takes a hammer to the statue, determined to smash it to pieces… but he is the one who ends up “with a shattered skull and lips bruised to a bloody pulp, lying crushed beneath Venus’s marble breasts, his arms clasped about her in a stiff embrace”. If this story was Smith’s sermon to the prudish, I commend him entirely. It’s one of the lighter Averoigne tales, but very amusing in parts.

10. A Night in Malnéant (1200s AD?). 3 ½ stars. Some scholars say this isn’t an Averoigne tale since it doesn’t mention the place or any location in the other Averoigne tales, but it seems fair to include it. After all, according to the editor, “it was written a scant two weeks after Smith’s first recognized Averoigne tale ‘The End of the Story’ and obviously utilizes an old world French setting with a super-romantic theme closely aligned to that of many other Averoigne tales”. It’s a haunting story about a guy who wanders the streets of a fog-filled city, asking for directions and other help, only to be rejected because everyone is obsessed in preparing for the funeral rites of some lady that apparently he might have known himself. Nothing is resolved in the end; it’s a pretty effective and unnerving tale.

11. A Rendezvous in Averoigne (late 1400s AD?). 3 stars. The most accessible (or “mainstream”) of the Averoigne stories is perhaps the most mundane, telling of a troubadour and his lady-love who get abducted by vampires, trapped in their castle in a grim forest, but end up killing their hosts (via a stake in their hearts) a bit too easily. There’s no denying it’s atmospheric, but this could have easily been a 5-star story if the stakes (pun) had been raised and if the vampires were more dangerous as vampires should be.

12. The Satyr (1600s AD?). 3 stars. The shortest story in the collection (6 pages) isn’t bad, just sketchy. Set at the castle in La Frênaie, it tells of the wife of a count who is smitten by a troubadour. She and her song-poet go off into the woods and run afoul a satyr who inflames their passions. The count hunts them down and impales them both with his sword as they are making love on the forest floor. It’s an okay story, but six pages can only do so much for any story.

The Lost City: Farewell, Friend

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 Eleven:

                              Farewell, Friend

 

His hand still burned. Three days after the surgical rape, he could feel the phantoms of old fingers inside the new. He didn’t own the Hand yet. Unlike the Eye, it needed time to settle in. Mike feared what it would make him.

But the pain was more manageable today. He could push it to the periphery and ignore most of it. He wished he could ignore Jilanka’s pain. What she had suffered on his behalf caused him more outrage than the curse foisted on him.

She was asleep in his arms, in the room they’d taken over for themselves with Pandora’s unexpected blessing. A blessing paid for in blood. He ran his hands over her back gently, getting angry again. She had been lashed forty-nine times and still had to sleep on her side. They hadn’t had sex for days; her vagina had been abused by a choke pear, and that too took time – like his gross-looking Hand – to heal.

Mike Wheeler should probably have declared a crusade on the Maidens for all the injuries done to him and his girlfriend. But he was a Maiden now himself, and proud of it. Jilanka was proud of him too. The Circle was his true calling, not the Creed.

Lucas was not proud of him. He was bullshit with rage, the Brothers wanted Mike dead, and it was all Gorm’s Chosen could do to call them off. If not for that, Mike would almost certainly have been slain by now. The Hand showed its might five days after surgery. Until tomorrow, Mike had to watch his back. Some of the Brothers – especially Azariah, Moser, and Hyme – weren’t beyond mutiny. He more than deserved to be assassinated.

He sighed and kissed Jilanka’s forehead. Things were bad between him and Lucas. He had committed treason and gone apostate, without having the decency to explain himself to his best friend. To be fair, he had intended to explain his defection in person – to both Lucas and Kanadius – but he’d just had his fucking hand chopped off by his wonderful new family. He’d gifted the Maidens with the Hand, and they had “rewarded” him accordingly, right back at him. While they tended to him howling in pain, one of their warriors went to Lucas and explained what Mike had done. She had collected Mike’s things from Lucas’s room… and that was the end of his service in the Brotherhood of Gorm.

It was the beginning of war between Brother and Maiden.

Jilanka stirred as he kissed her again. “Hey sleepy,” he said. “How’s it all feel today?”

“Shitty,” she said, fingering his Hand. It was as black, withered, and looked feeble. It was feeble. Until tomorrow.

“Still sore?” he asked.

“A little,” she said. She sat up in their bed and gently prodded her nethers – and hissed in pain.

Mike was angry all over again. “Whoever came up with the idea of vaginal choke pears -”

He was cut off as someone began pounding on their door.

Jilanka grabbed her shirt. “Who the fuck?”

“You expecting a Maiden?” asked Mike, sitting up.

“No,” she said, throwing on more clothes. “No one’s supposed to come here, unless it’s an emergency. This is our room.” Pandora’s single act of magnanimity.

More pounding. And insistent.

“Jesus Christ,” said Mike, jumping out of bed.

The door crashed open. Lucas barged in, and stopped when he saw them half naked.

Mike was stunned by the outrageous intrusion. “What the fuck!”

Lucas was out of breath. “Sorry, you guys. Mike, you need to come now.”

“Get out of here!” shouted Mike. “Who do you think you are?”

Jilanka was looking casually at Lucas: “He wants to fuck you, Mike. He misses rooming with you, and the sight of your ass.”

Lucas ignored her. “Mike, whatever problems you and I have, they’ll keep. You need to get dressed and haul ass.”

Mike tried getting on his pants too quickly, tripped, and fell. He swore, and yanked his pants up while sitting on the floor. “The only ass I’m going to haul is yours, Lucas – out of this room.” He stood and moved towards Lucas.

“Will you stop and listen to me?” yelled Lucas.

“What do you want?” demanded Mike.

“It’s Will,” said Lucas. “He killed Auriga.”

“What?!” said Mike.

“Last night. He’s the Chief Mage now.”

“Well, well,” said Jilanka. “The Spider bites back.”

“Will’s no Spider,” said Mike, full of unease. “He’s the Eye of a lich.”

“He’s asking to see us,” said Lucas. “Dustin is already there.”

“You mean Demetrius?” asked Mike, strapping on his sword.

“No, Demetrius is lurking. So Dustin can talk to his friends – all of us – directly.”

Mike looked at Jilanka. “I’ll be back. Whenever.”

She nodded. “Go ahead.”

He and Lucas left the room, went around the corridor and down to the revolving passage. He scowled at Lucas on the way. So Dustin can talk to his friends. Mike wasn’t sure they were all friends anymore. He and Lucas certainly weren’t. Dustin was absent too often. And Will – unless they were about to see a big change – was practically a vegetable.

In the revolving passage they saw two Brothers, and Mike was instantly on guard. Druis and Lazur. When they saw Mike they reached for their swords. Lucas held up a hand and shook his head.

Druis cursed Mike from the other end of the hall. “How you show your treacherous face around here is beyond me, Mike.”

Lazur gave Mike the finger. “I pray that Hand chokes you in your sleep,” he said.

Mike ignored them, trying to stay calm. If not for Lucas, he would have had to leave the pyramid and take up residence down in the city. His Maiden status alone wasn’t enough to protect him from execution.

Lucas nodded at Druis and Lazur, telling them to go first. At their end, they pushed the button that made the hall align with the northwest-southeast axis, and they left for the temple of Gorm. Mike breathed easier when they left. He was lucky it had been Druis and Lazur. They were moderates. Militant or fanatic Brothers might have started something uglier.

“They say he’s talking now,” said Lucas, pushing the button for the east-west axis. The passage began grinding.

“He is?” said Mike. For the past three days, Will had been little more than catatonic, eating when food was brought to him, relieving himself at the latrine, but mostly just sitting or lying silent in bed. “Well, good. That’s promising.”

“Maybe,” said Lucas. “How do you like being a woman?”

“Fuck you,” retorted Mike. “I’m as much a man as any Brother.”

Lucas shrugged. “You call yourself a maiden now, so forgive me if I’m confused.”

“I’m a Maiden,” said Mike, “and proud of it. My gender hasn’t changed, as you well know.”

“Look, Mike, I can’t imagine how Pandora allowed you to join her all-female club. If not for the Hand you’re wearing – sworn to her service – I guarantee you she would have never done so. You’re being used.”

“You don’t know shit, Lucas,” said Mike, growing furious. “I’d advise shutting up.”

“Fine.”

They debarked and went down the hall to the Usamigaran temple. An exotic smell filled the shrine as they walked in. Jasmine. Mike’s favorite incense. It was burning in braziers at the star-shaped altar to the right. Straight ahead they saw Dustin jawing with four other Magi; he waved when he saw his friends. Above them on the dais sat Will. He seemed dazed and out of focus. Mike noticed his right hand twitching on the arm rest of his chair. Frankly he didn’t look much improved. Oh, Will.

Dustin joined them. “How’s the Hand, Mike? Or, should I ask, how is it treating you?”

Mike didn’t want to discuss it in front of Lucas. “Fine,” he said, pleased that the pain had receded. “Tomorrow we’ll find out, I guess.”

“Don’t talk about the Hand,” said Lucas, triggered. “And don’t be friendly with Mike. We’re here to see Will.”

“Hey, I’m Switzerland,” said Dustin. “I never thought the Brothers had a better right to it than the Maidens. On the other hand, Mike, that was a pretty dick move on your part.”

“Oh, you think?” said Lucas. “And yes we we do have a better right to the Hand. Demetrius thought so too.”

“So did Auriga,” said Mike. “And what kind of shithead was he?”

“The only reason,” said Dustin, “that Demetrius and Auriga allied with the Brothers is because of you two. They thought it made sense to involve Will’s friends – all of us aliens from another world. It was Demetrius’s idea, and Auriga went along with it. I know this, as you know, because Demetrius is in my head all the time. Otherwise, who knows, the Magi might have offered their deal to the Maidens instead.”

Lucas snorted. “I doubt it.”

“How do you like being a Maiden, Mike?” asked Dustin.

“Can we not talk about this!” said Lucas.

Up yours, Lucas. “Love being a Maiden,” he said to Dustin. “I’ve been happier three days in the Circle than I was three months in the Creed.” A blatantly revisionist lie, but he wanted to piss off Lucas as much as possible.

Lucas looked at him. “See how happy you are when -”

“Shut up, you guys,” said Dustin.

Another Magi entered the door from the hall to the barracks. He went over and talked quietly with some of the other Magi.

“This place took a pounding last night,” said Dustin, watching them. “Everyone’s a bit on edge.”

“Dustin, what happened?” asked Mike.

“From what these guys and gals tell me, Will went apeshit. It was the island all over again. In his own bedroom, for Christ’s sake. Auriga was with him. For some reason Will got triggered and started death-screaming. When the Magi found him, Auriga’s body was on the floor in pieces – his bones shattered and his teeth everywhere.”

“Fuckin’ A,” said Mike.

“Good riddance,” said Lucas.

“You should see the room,” said Dustin. “Will vaporized all the furniture and then brought down the walls and ceiling. It’s like a fucking bomb hit it. The Magi will be clearing out stone forever. Not that Will needs to sleep there anymore. He’s taken over Auriga’s chamber.”

“How did that happen?” asked Mike.

“The Magi elected him Chief Mage on the spot,” said Dustin. “Their Spider Child. And believe me, there’s no love lost over Auriga. He was universally disliked, if not despised.”

“Did he kill any of the Magi?” asked Lucas. “In his rage?”

“No, but it sounds like it was dicey. They waited over a half hour for him to stop screaming. Then one of the Magi – Jess is her name – was finally able to talk him down.”

“A half hour?” asked Mike. “That was the rumbling noise we heard last night?”

“Kanadius heard it too,” said Lucas. “He was down here last night in the Brothers’ temple. He thought it was the revolving passage – the machinery breaking down.”

“Dustin, have you talked to Will?” asked Mike.

“Negative,” said Dustin. “He’s been sitting there like that since I got here, not looking very lively. But he is talking again, apparently, and he told the Magi he wants to speak to us.”

At the dais one of the Magi was addressing Will, and he nodded to her. She turned and came up to them. “Our Chief Mage will speak to you now. The rest of us will leave the room for you.”

“Thank you, Jess,” said Dustin.

The Magi finished their business. One of them checked on the incense, and replaced the candles on the altar. Then he left the temple with the others.

Mike, Lucas, and Dustin walked up close to the dais. Will didn’t look at them. He was looking over their heads, at the entry door forty feet away. He had done this since returning from the Isle; looked past anyone who stood near him. Mike wondered if it was a subconscious defense mechanism, to protect others. Was the Eye triggered when he looked directly at people? Is that what made him scream?

“Hi guys,” said Will. He exhaled the words as if they’d been sitting on his tongue for hours.

“Hey, you’re talking now,” said Dustin. “That’s a good sign.”

“It’s hard,” said Will, enunciating each word. “I have to think each word to talk.”

“Well, don’t hurt yourself,” said Mike. “How did you get your voice back?”

“When I came down after killing Auriga, I was able to talk. Each comedown… it affects me differently.”

“That’s rather alarming,” said Dustin.

“And you’re the boss,” said Mike. “You’re fucking twelve years old, Will, and they made you Chief Mage.”

“Yeah, well, they were probably scared of being blown to atoms if they didn’t,” said Dustin.

“Did you ask for the position, Will?” asked Lucas.

“No,” said Will. “They said I was the one with enough integrity and power to lead the Magi. But I don’t know… I’m not a leader. And I can’t get around easy… I hurt all the time… and it’s exhausting to talk.”

“I’m so sorry this happened to you, Will,” said Lucas. “If there had been any other way off that island -”

“It’s okay, Lucas,” said Will. “What’s done is done.”

“Is there anything we can do for you?” asked Lucas.

Will shook his head slowly. “No. Nothing can be done for me.”

They all looked at him, upset, and not knowing what to say.

Dustin finally asked: “Well, is there anything we can do to be sure you won’t start screaming at us? A lot of people in this pyramid are concerned, especially your fellow Magi.”

“Why did you kill Auriga, Will?” asked Mike. “I mean, not that we’re complaining.”

“I’m not sure,” said Will. “I can’t control the Eyebite. It… has a will of its own. But I don’t think good people need to worry. I didn’t kill any of you on the isle. I didn’t kill any Magi last night.”

But you would have killed us if you’d kept blowing the island to smithereens. Mike still didn’t know how he had reached Will to make him stop.

“Okay,” said Dustin. “I guess. But your room, Will. Jesus. One of these days, you’re going to bring down the whole pyramid. And it won’t matter who’s good and bad.”

“I know,” said Will. “That’s why I need to be alone as much as possible. So no one triggers me.”

“Well,” said Lucas. “You know I’m always here for you. If you ever need anything, or anyone to talk to, send one of the Magi to let me know.”

Will smiled then at Lucas. It was a sad smile, as if Lucas had just announced that he was going away forever. “Thanks, Lucas. And I know you have to get back to your Brothers. Kanadius is looking for you. So I’ll let you go.” He stood up from his chair and began hobbling down the dais. His right hand kept twitching.

He walks like an old man. Like he belongs in a nursing home. How does a scream of death come from a kid this infirm?

“You’re seeing Kanadius now?” asked Lucas, as Will came up to him.

“I see everything, Lucas.” And then he hugged Lucas, clasping him in his frail arms. “Thank you… for everything you tried to do for me.”

That stung. Mike cleared his throat. “Not to sound churlish, Will, but I was the one who tried saving you on the isle. Lucas was holding you down for Auriga’s blade.”

Will ignored Mike and hugged Lucas for a long time. Finally he let him go.

Lucas smiled at him and said good-bye, and then to Dustin as well. Ignoring Mike, he turned and left the temple.

Mike was ready to start throwing things. “Will, seriously -”

“Dustin,” said Will, “you’ll be here a while? Before going back?”

“Byers, I expect your Magi to fatten me up with a full-course lunch before I return to the city. Hell yes, I’ll be here a while.”

Will nodded and then turned to Mike. Up this close the Eye made him look monstrous. He still looked past Mike, not at him. “Come with me, Mike,” he said. “We can talk in my chamber.”

So that’s it. Will has sided with Lucas and wants to tear me a new one. In private at least.

“Sure,” said Mike. “Lead the way.” Your little Majesty. He wanted to talk privately anyway, and ask Will about the Hand.

 

“Are you serious?” said Mike. He petted the wolf at his side, and the wolf licked his hands. Auriga’s pet now his.

“He already likes you more than Auriga,” said Will.

“Yeah, well, that’s not saying much,” said Mike, scratching behind the ear.

They were in Will’s chamber, also formerly Auriga’s. Will sat at the desk, and Mike was by the bed, bonding with his new friend. It turned out that Will had no intention of dressing Mike down. Will was beyond taking sides.

“Auriga was a terrible man,” said Will. “But he treated his wolf okay.”

Mike smiled. “Thanks Will. I’ll treat him well too. I think Jilanka will like him. What’s his name?”

“Sauce,” said Will.

” ‘Sauce’?”

Will nodded.

Mike laughed. “Did Auriga let him drink booze, or is he a rude wolf?”

“Mike,” said Will.

“Yeah?”

“Sit down.”

Mike came over to the desk and sat in the visitor’s chair. Sauce followed and sat next to him on the floor.

“How does the Hand feel?” asked Will.

“The pain’s bearable today,” said Mike. “Am I really going to be invincible?”

“Not entirely,” said Will. “The Hand will cause your body to absorb any damage done to it, but only up to a point. If you’re attacked by a hundred warriors, or if you fall more than a hundred feet… you could die in cases like that. But you’ll also be empowered as a warrior. In D&D terms, the Hand will let you fight at five levels above your current one.”

“Shit,” said Mike, looking down at his withered appendage. It was hard to believe. The Hand seemed nothing like an artifact of lordly might.

He looked up at Will. “What about you? Are you still in pain?”

“I feel pain all the time,” said Will. “It won’t go away.” He explained to Mike the stinging headaches that came from seeing things up to thirty feet. (He had left the room door open, and was looking over Mike’s head out into the hallway.) And all the other things he could see without any pain at all. Mike listened, unable to believe any of it.

“Will,” he said finally. “That means you’re a fucking god.”

“I don’t like being a god,” said Will. “I see everything.”

Mike tried wrapping his head around it. “Everything – in any time – all at once?”

“I have to focus on things I really want to understand. But the Sight is always there. It’s always happening. It’s less focused when I’m with people and talking to them, like now, with you. But on some level I’m aware of everything that goes on in this world, even if a lot of it doesn’t make sense.”

“But you can actually see the future?” Mike insisted.

“Yes. Or alternate futures. Some future events are more certain than others.”

“Do you know my future?”

Will nodded. “In your case, yes. I do.”

Mike hesitated. What the hell does that mean? He wasn’t sure he wanted to ask – or even what to ask. He tried another tack. “What are these visions like? Do you see everything in just a few seconds? Is it like a watching a movie at fast-forward speed?”

“Do you want to see?” asked Will.

Shit, no. Hell, yes. “I don’t… I don’t know.”

“Give me your hand,” said Will, holding out his own.

“Oh shit, Will. I don’t want to see myself dying or doing something -”

“Not your future,” said Will. “Your past. Something that’s already happened. I’ll show you how I see things.”

Mike took Will’s hand, cold and limp, and was instantly flooded with vision. He gasped unbelievingly. The late morning of three days ago replayed itself as if he were an omniscient observer. It was indeed like watching a movie.

“Relax, Mike. Hold me and watch.”

Relax? After your shitstorm on the island and blowing up your bedroom? And now you torture me with this memory? Mike tried to breathe deeply as he began to relive that harrowing morning. He’d been remade, just like Will…

 

… He waited outside the door of the Madaruan temple, a nervous wreck. Inside Jilanka was announcing Mike’s arrival. He had told her the previous night – when he returned from the Isle – that he was renouncing the Brotherhood and wanted to give the Hand to the Maidens. Early this morning Jilanka told him that the Maidens wanted to receive his gift directly from him at the temple. But no man ever set foot in this temple. The penalty was execution.

He waited a long time. Finally the door opened and Jilanka came out. She looked paler than her own race.

“Are you okay?” he asked in alarm.

“She’ll see you now,” said Jilanka, her voice shaking, holding the door for him.

“Jilanka, what -”

“Just go in, Mike,” she said. “Answer her questions honestly, and by the gods show her respect. Understand?”

He nodded, his stomach doing back-flips. If he died today, at least he had done plenty worth dying for. He hadn’t just played D&D; for these past three months he’d lived it. He went into the temple, and Jilanka followed, closing the door behind them.

Inside, Mike stood where no man had stood for centuries. It was a shrine like the temples of Gorm and Usamigaras, dedicated to the old ways before the Zargonites came. Near the corner of the room opposite the door was an altar covered with a green and white cloth. There was a statue on the altar, about three feet tall, of a woman holding a sword and a sheaf of wheat. A white candle burned on each side of the statue. There were braziers to the side of the alter, burning with incense – an incense far more pungent (and pleasant, Mike thought) than the scents used by the Brothers, though less exotic than those used by the Usamigarans. It smelled like honeysuckle.

In front of the altar stood Madarua’s Champion: much as her reputation suggested, as beautiful as she was strong, with not a hint of grace towards any who might defy her. What Mike would have given to see her and Kanadius go toe to toe.

Her Maidens formed a semicircle in the back. They had the customary attire: green shirts with chain mail, swords, and the bronze masks of a beautiful but grim looking woman. Mike approached the altar and stood before Pandora. He saw Jilanka put on her mask and join her Maidens behind him.

“So,” said Pandora. “This is the alien Brother who has been bedding one of our own. And using mushrooms while shagging her right under our nose.”

Angry murmurs filled the shrine.

The Champion’s gaze fixed on him. “Jilanka had confessed her profane activities, and told me about the mission to the Island of Death. A mission that we were excluded from.”

Mike cleared his throat. “Yes, ma’am. Your exclusion bothered me from the start. It’s why I’m here today.”

“You bring us the Hand of Gaius?” she asked.

Mike nodded and took the bag of holding from his belt. At once he heard swords drawn behind him. He raised the bag slowly to show he meant no harm. “May I?” he asked the Champion.

Pandora nodded.

Touchy little bitches.

He withdrew the Hand, blackened and withered, and offered it up to Pandora. She approached Mike and received it. She examined it carefully. “You realize that for doing this you’ll be killed,” she said. “Kanadius will execute you.”

“I’ll take my chances,” he said, noncommittal. He was banking on Lucas. If Lucas objected to Mike being killed, which he almost certainly would, then Kanadius would probably defer to Gorm’s Chosen.

Pandora looked at her Maidens. Moments passed and they seemed to silently agree on something.

She turned back to Mike: “What about taking your chances with those to whom you have extended a surfeit of good will? And whose Maiden you are clearly in love with?”

Mike frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I offer you a place in our Circle.”

“Wha – excuse me?”

Pandora smiled. “According to Jilanka, you have already renounced your Brotherhood vows, even if you haven’t informed the Brothers yet. So technically I’m not asking you to convert. Just to join. You believe in us enough to betray your vows and gift us with something that will give us an immense edge over the Brothers. And Jilanka has testified to your sympathetic ear on certain issues of Maiden doctrine. And your skills as a warrior are well known in this pyramid.”

Mike was bewildered. “Maybe I’ve completely misunderstood the Madaruan religion. Since when do you accept men as temple warriors?”

“It’s actually happened before,” said Pandora.

“It has?” He couldn’t believe it. A male Maiden was an oxymoron.

“An extremely rare event, granted, given the arrogant nature of men. The Circle is an affront to feelings of male superiority, especially in matters of war. But there is the rare man who grasps our doctrine and sees its wisdom. There was Wyrio Sind, who converted from the Brotherhood in 236 AC, and Meshan Grympur, who was a hard-core Zargonite; he had a radical conversion to Madarua in 773 AC. Two of our greatest heroes. You, Mike Wheeler, would be the the third male Maiden since the fall of the kingdom – if you accept my offer.”

Mike knew from his history lessons in the Brotherhood that the current year was 1055 AC, and that the Cynidicean kingdom fell in 127 BC – when King Alexander and Queen Zenobia were assassinated. So in the span of those 1182 years, two men had somehow managed to become accepted as full members in an all-female cult. What had they done? Offered up Gaius’s Tongue and Cock?

“Bear in mind,” said Pandora, “that I don’t make this offer lightly, nor purely out of gratitude. It’s Jilanka’s testimony about you, and what I see in you today, that impels me to bring you into our fold. Your offer of Gaius’s Hand simply confirms our perception of you.”

Mike cursed Jilanka for not giving him a heads up about this offer. Or had she not known that Pandora would make it? Did Pandora want an answer now? Would she and the Maidens be offended if he refused? Would Jilanka?

He fumbled for a reply. “It’s… a very nice offer… and I’m flattered…”

“I don’t flatter,” snapped Pandora. “And I’m making you a serious offer, not a nice one. Take it seriously before you answer.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to offend.” Then he wondered something: “But hold on… when a male becomes a Maiden, are you saying that he has to, you know, literally become a maiden? I’m sorry, but there’s no way I’m becoming a eunuch.”

At that, Pandora laughed. All the Maidens laughed. Mike could hear Jilanka laughing too, behind him.

“I’m asking a serious question,” he barked at Pandora. “Maybe you could take it seriously before you answer.”

It was a bad thing to say. The Maidens hissed. No man spoke to Madarua’s Champion that way, especially in her own temple. Some of them reached for their swords again.

Pandora stopped them with a gesture. Her eyes never left Mike. “I assure you, Mike Wheeler, that I take everything said in this shrine with the utmost seriousness. And no, you are not required to be a castrate. There is nothing inherently wrong or deficient in being male while serving the goddess. Unfortunately your ex-Brothers don’t extend the same doctrinal courtesies. There has never been a female Brother, and I guarantee you there never will be.”

Mike nodded, wanting more time to think. He could feel Jilanka’s eyes on him from behind. She will be spared punishment for sleeping with the enemy. Because I bring the Hand. And if I submit to them. He felt pressures and implied threats, despite Pandora’s benign words. They want a male Maiden. More than anything. It would increase the cult’s legitimacy and help put to bed their reputation as all-out male haters. Theoretically anyway.

“You may take a day to consider this,” said Pandora. “But if you refuse, you will never be offered again.” Then she added, almost as an afterthought: “And don’t worry about your drug habit. Jilanka has come clean about the details of that as well.”

Mike flushed red and his heart began to race.

“She tells me that she knows how to mix mushrooms so that addiction isn’t a problem and – even more incredibly – so that it is possible to turn off the drug effects, and back on again, through sheer will power. Is this true?”

Mike knew that lying would be suicide. He nodded.

The Champion’s eyes narrowed. “Speak when you answer me.”

He cleared his throat. “Yes, ma’am.”

Pandora nodded. “And it was she who taught you this? Not the other way around? She’s not protecting you?”

“No… no, ma’am. How would I ever know a secret like that about mushrooms?”

“Because you’re an alien from another world,” said Pandora bluntly. “I don’t know what kind of knowledge you have. Jilanka is a yokel who thinks with her twat. That she discovered this secret accidentally is nothing short of stupendous.”

It’s precisely her insatiable twat that led her to the discovery. Jilanka had needed to overpower men so that she could rape them. That naturally led her to use the sex craze/slow-time combo. Mike refrained from pointing out the obvious.

“Rest assured,” said Pandora, “that Jilanka will be punished as she deserves. For breaking her oath repeatedly and concealing it from us. Not just the drugs, but her intimacy with you – while you still wore a Brother’s mask.” Pandora hadn’t deigned to look at Jilanka throughout this. “She hoped that bringing you to us with the Hand might give her a pass. In this she was quite wrong. Her punishment will be severe. But she will not be expelled.”

“How will she be punished?” he asked, feeling sick.

“She will be lashed forty-nine times. For using drugs. She will also wear a choke pear in her cunt for twenty-four hours. For her activities with you on that abominable altar.”

Choke pear? What the hell is that?

“Afterwards she will be forgiven and the slate wiped clean. Indeed, moving forward, I am inclined to release all Maidens from the Circle’s prohibition against mushrooms – if they are mixed so that they are non-addictive. But this is something I need to examine at considerable length. Regardless of whether you join us or not.”

Mike suddenly realized how much he did want to join them. “I accept your offer,” he blurted out, before any more doubts could paralyze him. “I mean… if you all really want to share your barracks with a guy.”

Pandora’s smile was warm, and faintly eager. “Then consider yourself welcome among the Maidens, Mike Wheeler, and on equal terms with the nine warriors standing around you.” She put on her mask and faced her warriors: “Maidens!”

Nine women drew their swords, saluting their new sister: “Welcome, Mike! Be true among us!”

Mike, having no clue what the right response was, opted for humility. He bowed low to Pandora, and then turned and bowed to the Maidens. Don’t open your mouth. You’ll make an ass of yourself. He held each bow for a good fifteen seconds.

Pandora seemed pleased. “Now take your sword, Mike, and draw your blood.”

Mike knew the ritual from the D&D module. He drew his sword and pricked his left forefinger. Then he smeared the blood on his sword blade. Approaching the altar, he placed the sword on it. Before Pandora could instruct him, he beat her to it: “I swear to uphold the honor of Madarua, with my life and blood.”

Pandora and her Maidens murmured approvingly (no doubt thinking that Jilanka had prepped him on this point). One of the Maidens had a brander. Mike was ready for this. He’d had the blue lightning bolt of Gorm burned onto his right upper arm. He assumed that would be coming off at some point. The Maiden took his left hand, turned it over, and then pressed the tool into the inside of his wrist. Mike winced. The burn would feel uncomfortable for a day or two. She released him and Mike looked at his wrist. It was the sickle of Madarua. He was now a Maiden.

They thundered again: “Welcome, Mike! Be true among us!”

Another Maiden handed him his uniform – the bronze mask and green tunic of the cult. Mike removed his blue shirt of the Brothers (he’d already discarded his gold mask) and put them both on. Pandora tore the blue shirt into pieces and threw them on the floor. Then she held up a hand, and the Maidens formed a circle around him.

“Mike Wheeler is now our sister. We defend him with our life and blood, as he defends us. He serves with us, eats with us, fights alongside us. He will not sleep in our barracks, however. I have decided on an arrangement. He and Jilanka have been carrying out an unholy affair in the obscene temple shunned by everyone. Jilanka will be punished for this, as I have said, but from this day forward I give her and Mike’s affair my blessing.” She turned to Mike: “Provided that you agree to never set foot in that temple ever again. Instead, there is an old storeroom in the same area. I suggest you move in there at once. I decree that room to be under Maiden protection. Jilanka will be free to join you in a day, once I remove the choke pear from her troublesome twat.”

Mike scarcely believed his ears. Not only had he been accepted as a male Maiden, he could keep his girlfriend. But he was sickened by the thought of Jilanka being lashed, and he didn’t like the sound of whatever a choke pear was. He turned and looked for Jilanka in the crowd of masked Maidens. It was hard to tell who was who. Eventually he spotted her, and she nodded to him.

Very well.

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Mike, facing Pandora again. “With your leave, I’ll start moving into that room right away. I also have to tell the Brothers what I’ve done here.” Renounced my vows. Become a Maiden. Given the Hand away. Jesus, they’ll cry for my blood. I’m sorry, Lucas…

“Hold,” said Pandora. “We’re not finished.”

“We’re not?”

“No.”

She nodded at someone behind Mike. At once he was seized by two Maidens, who forced him to his knees.

“Hey!” Mike shouted. “What are you doing?”

“Relax, Mike,” said Pandora. “You are one of us. And we are gifting you as you have gifted us.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, panicking.

“We are removing your right hand, and giving you the Hand of Gaius.”

“What?!” shouted two voices at once.

It was Mike and someone behind him: Jilanka. His girlfriend was stunned. Clearly Pandora hadn’t briefed her about this part of the bargain.

“This is as much for practical reasons as anything else. When the Brothers learn of your treachery, it will be war between us. They would stop at nothing to kill any one of my Maidens if she wore the Hand. With you they’ll think twice.”

“Are you crazy?” shouted Mike. “Because I’m a traitor, they’ll want to kill me for wearing the Hand!”

“Your friend Lucas might object. And it’s clear from everything we’ve heard that the Brothers obey Lucas as they do the word of Gorm. They would even defy Kanadius, if Lucas ever opposed his will.”

Mike felt the walls closing in. “Pandora, please. I don’t want the Hand.” He saw Will going under the knife. “I don’t want my hand chopped off.” The devastating rage. “I don’t want to be out of control.” To murder people. Will, annihilating everything in sight.

She came up to him and held his cheeks. “Losing control is nothing to fear – if your heart is true. You serve the goddess, and her servants support you. I will help you.”

“You’ll help me.” Who was going to help this bitch when the Hand cried for her blood?

Her claim that he was the only practical candidate for the Hand – against the threat of Gormish assassins – was a blatant lie. She had already said at the start that she believed Kanadius would want him executed for his treason. She was foisting the Hand on him so that if it proved uncontrollable – if it’s curse was too great – then Mike, as a male newbie, was expendable. Pandora would sooner execute him than another Maiden. On the other hand, if the Hand’s power could be harnessed with minimal risk, then the Maidens would have their third male warrior in eleven centuries – a super warrior – and it would bathe the cult in a glow of tolerance for the opposite gender. A win-win situation for Pandora.

“I’ll help you indeed, Mike Wheeler,” said Madarua’s Champion. She leaned over and kissed his forehead, and then nodded again.

One of his captors kicked his legs out from under him. When he hit the floor the other Maiden pulled his right arm out in front. A third Maiden from the side produced a wicked-looking weapon – not a sword, but a sickle.

“No!” screamed Mike. “I don’t want this! I said I don’t want this!!”

The sickle was raised high. The candlelight gleamed on its blade.

“No fears,” Pandora chided, almost whispering. “No fears at all.”

“Please!” said Mike. I tried to save Will from this! I tried!

The sickle looked wicked as it came down hard. Mike screamed.

And he went on screaming for a long time.

 

Mike pulled his hand away from Will. He couldn’t relive the transplant. He looked down at the Hand – his Hand now – and shuddered. By tomorrow it would be fully healed. He wasn’t sure what kind of person he would be.

“Thanks a heap for doing that to me again,” he said.

“It’s how I see things,” said Will.

“In the blink of your Eye, literally,” said Mike. That whole encounter had replayed in milliseconds, but it felt like he had absorbed it in real time, like a movie. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for you, seeing things like that every single moment of the day.”

“I wish I didn’t have the Eye, Mike,” he said. His voice broke: “I wish I could go home.”

Mike’s eyes filled with tears. “I know. Me too.” Real D&D wasn’t all fun and adventure, not even half. It was mountains of curses and misery.

“I’m a monster now,” said Will.

“Well, I’m glad you killed Auriga. He deserved it.”

“I’m not,” said Will.

“What?”

“I don’t like to kill anyone. And I don’t like liking to kill.”

“I’m afraid that’s going to happen to me, starting tomorrow,” said Mike.

“You’ll have it easier than me,” said Will. “And harder.”

“What do you mean?”

“The curse of the Eye is something I’ll live with constantly. The curse of the Hand lasts for one day. The fifth day. That’s tomorrow. You get it out of the way, and it’s over.”

Mike’s bowels turned to water. “I’ll be cursed tomorrow?”

“Yes. The five-finger curse.”

Mike didn’t like the sound of that. “What’s the five-finger curse?”

Will didn’t answer. His head bobbed slowly up and down.

“Will?”

Will blinked his right eye. “Yes… Mike?”

Jesus Christ. “What’s the fucking five-finger curse?”

“The curse of the Hand.”

Mike wanted to scream. “What is that? What is the curse of the fucking Hand?” Will was becoming a useless Yoda.

Will was shaking his head and muttering. He finally spoke: “You have to kill five friends, Mike.”

Mike felt smacked by a ten-ton boulder.

“I told you, Mike… easier… and harder.”

“You’re saying I have to murder five friends?”

Will nodded.

“Well, I’m not doing that. How do I avoid the curse, or step around it? There’s go to be a way, right?”

“No, Mike. It can’t be avoided.”

“I won’t do it!” Panic began filling his chest. “I won’t. Period.”

“That would be a bad choice,” said Will.

“Why is that?”

“If you don’t kill five friends tomorrow, the Hand will make you slaughter innocent people every day of your life. You’ll become a mass murderer.”

“I don’t have that many friends! I have you, Lucas, and Dustin. And Jilanka.”

“They don’t have to be close friends, and they don’t even have to be current friends. Anyone who is or was a friend fulfills the curse. Any of the Brothers would qualify, even if they don’t like you now. They were your friends for three months. Or any of the people you know in the city – in the Gormish stronghold. A lot of those people – and the kids especially – worshiped you.”

“I’m not killing kids! I’m not killing anyone! I’m not a murderer, Will.”

“It’s either five people tomorrow or hundreds of people for the rest of your life. Choose the five, Mike.”

“No, I’m not doing it,” said Mike, feeling small and helpless.

“But you will, Mike.” Will’s voice conveyed a deep sorrow, for what he’d seen Mike do. On a future path that showed no alternative. “I’m sorry… but you will. I’ve seen it. And you have to. You must.”

 

Mike barged into the temple of Gorm. His sword was drawn and his intentions quite plain.

“Hey!” shouted Krayzen, one of the Brothers. All nine of them were there, practicing drills, as Mike knew they would be at this time. They stopped short when they saw him.

“What are you doing here, Mike?” demanded Djibor.

“How dare you profane our temple!” yelled Azariah. “You filthy apostate!”

Mike breathed deeply, intent on carrying out what he set out to do – what Will told him yesterday that he must do. He wouldn’t become a mass murderer. Five of these Brothers had to die.

“I’m going to kill some of you,” he announced to his former Brothers. “Forgive me.” Madarua forgive me.

They looked at each other, and then eight of them had their swords drawn. Krayzen ran around Mike and out of the room, bounding down the hall to the revolving passage. Mike let him go.

He’s running to tell Kanadius. So be it. All that matters is that Lucas isn’t here.

Kanadius was upstairs in this chamber. Lucas was with Jilanka, in her and Mike’s room near the abandoned temple. She and Mike had coordinated a way to keep Lucas out of this mess. Jilanka sent for Lucas on false pretensions – that she wanted to speak to him privately about her and Mike’s relationship, and concerns that she had about Mike. A decoy to keep Lucas occupied while Mike committed this terrible deed.

Only hours ago he had explained the curse to Pandora: what Will told him yesterday, and how he intended to meet the curse’s demand with minimal cost. Pandora had grimly approved. Five lives were a perfect strike against Brothers – enough to do meaningful harm without wiping out the temple force altogether. The Brothers were oppressive, but a necessary evil against the Zargonites. If Kanadius himself were one of the casualties, then so much the better, she said.

Mike had no intentions of killing Kanadius. He feared the Grand Master’s replacement too much. After what he was about to do in this room, the Brothers would call for a hothead to lead them – a militant or a fanatic or, even worse, Lucas himself. Mike couldn’t abide the thought of Lucas in charge of this temple. His selfless righteousness had been a tough pill to swallow recently.

“I’m sorry for this,” he said again. These eight men had been his friends only days ago.

“Is this you, Mike?” asked Gore. “Or the Hand?”

“Both,” snarled Mike, as he charged them all.

They were shocked by his bold assault on eight temple warriors, but they were ready. Or so they thought. They hadn’t a prayer. This was the fifth day: Mike wasn’t invulnerable yet – that would come after he killed five of these Brothers – but he was unfathomably deadly. He had woken this morning to a fully assimilated Hand. A Hand that exulted in treachery.

Forgive me.

He leaped and whirled, and the Brothers shouted at what they saw. They couldn’t strike him; he was way too fast and evaded their blades with some incredible sixth sense. He chose his five victims – his friends – randomly, in no particular order, honoring in his mind what they had done for him:

Hyme. My friend in theology. When I ridiculed dogma, you explained The Creed. The importance of texts and original meanings. Mike had no use for those original meanings, but thanks to Hyme he knew they at least mattered. A text wasn’t open to any interpretation. Hyme: split up the groin and disemboweled.

Gore. My friend in training. When my sword got ideas, you gave it better ones. An extension of the arm; a part of the body; of the Hand. Mike wielded that Hand now, sword and arm, like an artist. Gore: run through the heart.

Lazur. My friend at the table. When food was short, you shared yours. Manyan, lentils, skritch, and dates. Spartan diets that had done Mike good; taught him frugality; improved his health. Lazur: cut open at the neck.

Djibor. My friend on the first day. When I made a fool of myself, you smacked me down. With a warrior discipline that wasn’t unkind. Thanks to this man, Mike knew integrity. Djibor: straight through the eye out the back of the head.

All of them, friends, slain in moments. A sword did the job, and the Hand made it happen – with fluid ease.

And now a fifth Brother, to seal the curse. Mike leaped on him:

Coval. My friend when I didn’t deserve one. That day I treated everyone like crap. Coval had taken it on the chin worse than anyone that day. Yet he defended Mike. Defended him to the teeth, seeing the light and goodness in this alien newbie. Coval: sliced from – no – sliced 

– what? –

Mike’s blade was smacked away and Coval shoved aside. A figure out of nowhere danced in front of Mike, claiming the offensive, and ordered the remaining Brothers not to interfere. Mike faltered out of surprise that became rage. The one standing before him had no right to be here. Mike had made sure of it; arranged it, by God, to have him out of the way, so that no heroics could interfere. Yet here he was.

Mike parried the attack as if batting away a fly. His opponent was the better swordsman. In their months of sparring matches he beat Mike three times out of four. But Mike was more than Mike, channeling a power that demanded blood – now from the most precious friendship of all.

No!

Yes:

Lucas. My best friend. For years since we were six. Through good and bad, we were friends writ for life. At school, at home, they’d had each others backs. Here in the Lost City just the same. Lucas: chopped – no! – chopped

No!

“Run away, Lucas,” he cried, swinging his sword, unable to resist the blood call. Lucas mistook the warning and doubled down. Every fiber of his being went into stopping this renegade’s slaughter.

“I said run away!” screamed Mike, bashing Lucas’s sword out of his hand. It went flying against the temple wall and clanged to the floor. Lucas stared at Mike. Mike tried to throw away his sword, then clutched it, craving the blood in front of him. Lucas shouted at Mike and backed away. Mike advanced. Lucas stepped back… and then stopped to look his friend in the eye:

“Jilanka told me your little plan. I feel sorry for you, Mike.”

The look of pity on Lucas’s face put Mike over. Pity me? Pity me, you shit? 

He suddenly, and very genuinely, wanted to kill Lucas.

He clutched his sword ferociously:

“I’ll show you who needs pity!” screamed Mike.

Lucas didn’t move to defend himself as Mike chopped his head off. It fell horribly on the floor, a face he’d known forever, running red and lifeless. Like the bird man’s. On that first day, when he and Lucas had taken this new world by storm. They’d grown up fast; fought hell hounds and clobbered hobgoblins. A day when friendship seemed eternal, and Mike would have died so his best one could live.

Lucas… I didn’t… I didn’t mean…

Mike froze seeing what he did, and dropped his sword. Fell on his knees and cried Lucas’s name. He was sorry, he didn’t mean it, he couldn’t help it, please, please, this wasn’t right…

He was seized by many hands. Yanked to his feet by surviving Brothers: Druis, Coval, Moser, Azariah. They shouted as one for the execution of the traitor and murderer – and to some, god-killer – Mike Wheeler. Mike could have broken free and pulverized them all. He had fulfilled the five-finger curse; he was already brimming with near invincibility. He just wanted Lucas back. And Hyme. And Gore. And Lazur. And Djibor. He kept saying he was sorry. The Brothers screamed and swore he’d burn in the Hells.

Then Kanadius was there. Krayzen had fetched him. The Grand Master stared at the carnage, then looked at Mike, his face as thunderous as Gorm’s lightning bolt.

“Just kill me,” Mike sobbed. “Please, now.”

Kanadius drew his sword. “Only Gorm can save you now, Mike. Hold him down, Brothers.”

The four Brothers positioned him for decapitation.

“Mike Wheeler, I sentence you to die,” said Kanadius. “For treason against the Brotherhood, and for the treacherous murder of your former Brothers. Above all, for slaying Gorm’s Chosen prophet, Lucas Sinclair, who was once your best friend. Do you have any final words?”

Mike shook his head, crying.

Kanadius nodded. “I will slay you and take back the Hand for the Brotherhood. In this we will be avenged. What we decide to do with the Hand will be long debated. May Gorm have mercy on your soul.” The Grand Master raised his sword.

Hardly aware of himself, Mike threw off his captors and tackled Kanadius as if a football linebacker. His Hand grabbed the sword from the Grand Master’s grip and sent it to the floor. He shoved Kanadius down, somersaulted over him, and then was up and running out of the temple. He was still crying. He had done all of this with little effort, let alone thought. The Brothers yelled in outrage. Kanadius told them to leave it. Mike was unassailable now.

The revolving passage still waited where Kanadius and Krayzen had left it. Mike took the passage to the south corridor.

He had wanted to die back in that room and still did. But his biology had other ideas. It craved survival, and Mike’s reflexes had taken over. Those reflexes were on a whole new plane, now that the Hand’s curse was fulfilled. He bounded upstairs to the second tier like a cheetah.

Lucas… I loved you!

And hated himself; he couldn’t bear the thought of any person seeing him. Not even Jilanka, who had betrayed him anyway. She had told Lucas what Mike intended, so that Lucas would interfere and die by the Hand. No one to trust.

One place to run.

Up to the second tier, and into the room he’d shared with Lucas. He opened a drawer and took Lucas’s sun-goggles; his own were downstairs with Jilanka. Then he was out and up, and up all the way. Out onto the pyramid top, where the sun blinded him, even through the goggles. He fell down, crying for Lucas. Pounded his right hand against the stone – cursing what he’d become, the Isle quest, Dustin’s stupid poster, and ever having come to this world. If Nancy and his parents could see him now, if they knew even half his perfidies, they’d never own up to him.

Damn you, Will. You saw this. You saw it! Why didn’t you warn me? Why didn’t you tell any of us?

Eventually he got up and looked around. The ruins of old Cynidicea lay beneath him, and beyond, the vast blinding desert. Through his tears it looked desolate; sane; free of betrayal and hurt.

Trust no one. And hurt no one.

That’s how it would be now.

Putting the Lost City behind him, Mike Wheeler walked down the pyramid steps, and out into the desert. To whatever lay beyond.

 

Next Chapter: Warriors of the Eternal Truth

(Previous Chapter: Eyebite)

Diary of a D&D Adventure

Yesterday a friend of mine stumbled across some old diaries he had written, and found an entry of a D&D adventure I put him through in 1991. It was the last year he and I played D&D together. We had just graduated from college; I would soon be joining the Peace Corps and he’d be off to grad school. Our lives had revolved around D&D since 1980, sometimes with other friends, but often just together, with one of us DM’ing and the other role-playing many characters. It was challenging and fun role-playing between 7-9 characters.

This entry was a delight to read; it brought back memories that probably would have stayed locked away without the trigger of these details. The adventure was Mount Gundabad in Middle-Earth. I vaguely remember our game of this orc-capital hell but forgot most of what happened. One of my friend’s characters died permanently — the cleric’s resurrection attempt failed — a ranger he’d grown very fond of.

Here’s the diary entry. Without the cleric and his resurrection rod, this game would have been over in a snap. Mount Gundabad is a nasty place.

Monday, June 17, 1991

After work today, I went to Loren’s house and played some Dungeons & Dragons. My characters were summoned to Earthsea by a group of magicians from Roke Isle who needed our help in retrieving a powerful evil artifact from the Hogans (Orc-like humanoids) of Mount Gundabad in Middle-Earth. We first tried to enter via the main entrance (using a mass invisibility spell) but we were soon detected by a monstrous dragon (350 feet long) which nearly killed us all (Aragorn lost his right leg), so we fled. Nenaunir then used his fly spell to discover an alternate entrance far up the mountain, and carried the rest of us up there one by one. We soon encountered a very large Hogan, whom we killed with only moderate difficulty, and recovered lots of treasure and magic items from his quarters. We then proceeded into an empty throne room, where Aragorn fell into a chute trap and plummeted thousands of feet down the mountainside to his death. Nenaunir flew down after him and recovered his body, and Nostrakan successfully resurrected him. Further on, we encountered a powerful Hogan magician who managed to slay Dranelian and Nenaunir and polymorph Aragorn into a loathsome monster. However, the remaining survivors managed to vanquish the bastard, and Nostrakan used his Rod of Resurrection to successfully reanimate Dranelian and Nenaunir, and Nenaunir then cast a spell to restore Aragorn to his original body. After this encounter, we traveled deeper into the depths of the mountain, and soon came to a room which was full of gold but apparently unguarded (obviously there was a trap around somewhere). We proceeded to cautiously enter the room, making sure not to touch the gold. Immediately, Aragorn and Dranelian fell victim to another trap: the floor slid back, dropping them into a pit filled with thousands of rats. By the time Nenaunir managed to get down there, ward off most of the rats with a Wall of Ice spell, and bring them out of the pit, both of them were already dead. Nostrakan managed to successfully resurrect Dranelian, but Aragorn was dead forever.

I wish I’d kept a diary like this — for that matter, that both of us had kept diaries throughout the ’80s. I have forgotten as many campaigns as I can remember. To gamers who are reading this post, I encourage you to keep diaries, not necessarily of every painstaking detail or what happened at every encounter area, but the highlights.

Anyway, I pulled Mount Gundabad off my shelf and reconstructed my friend’s movements through the mountain based on the diary entry. His mission was to retrieve the horrible artifact, the Ulûkai of Morgoth (see here for details), which is located on the Fourth Rise of the Great Spire:

I forget how he got to the top of the Great Spire, or if he ever even did. Based on his descriptions in the diary entry, he entered the mountain on the Second Rise of the Cloven Spire when he failed at the Drake Gate, then went down to the First Rise (where his ranger was killed for good), and that’s the end of the entry. Maybe we finished the campaign at a later date.

His seven characters were high level (15th-18th) and they were as follows. His original party in the ’80s was nine: the paladin and dwarf fighter/thief had been killed years ago.

1. Nenaunir (human mage)
2. Dranelian (human fighter)
3. Aragorn (human ranger)
4. Nostrakan (half-elf cleric)
5. Dalin (wood-elf druid)
6. Elvaire Eldamar (female half-elf cavalier)
7. Conan II (human barbarian)

Ivanhoe (human paladin) – died one or two years before
Drasmir (dwarf fighter/thief) – died many years before

Here’s the path his characters took through the mountain. I’ve replicated the diary entry and added the area keys.

Monday, June 17, 1991

After work today, I went to Loren’s house and played some Dungeons & Dragons. My characters were summoned to Earthsea by a group of magicians from Roke Isle who needed our help in retrieving a powerful evil artifact from the Hogans (Orc-like humanoids) of Mount Gundabad in Middle-Earth. We first tried to enter via the main entrance [The Drake Gate] (using a mass invisibility spell) but we were soon detected by a monstrous dragon (350 feet long) which nearly killed us all (Aragorn lost his right leg), so we fled. Nenaunir then used his fly spell to discover an alternate entrance far up the mountain [at the top of the Cloven Spire, 29], and carried the rest of us up there one by one. We soon encountered a very large Hogan [The Warlord Hurog, 28 B], whom we killed with only moderate difficulty, and recovered lots of treasure and magic items from his quarters [28 C]. We then proceeded into an empty throne room [27], where Aragorn fell into a chute trap and plummeted thousands of feet down the mountainside to his death. Nenaunir flew down after him and recovered his body, and Nostrakan successfully resurrected him. Further on, we encountered a powerful Hogan magician [The Warlock Akargun, 25 A] who managed to slay Dranelian and Nenaunir and polymorph Aragorn into a loathsome monster. However, the remaining survivors managed to vanquish the bastard, and Nostrakan used his Rod of Resurrection to successfully reanimate Dranelian and Nenaunir, and Nenaunir then cast a spell to restore Aragorn to his original body. After this encounter, we traveled deeper into the depths of the mountain [from 18 down to 13], and soon came to a room which was full of gold but apparently unguarded [4] (obviously there was a trap around somewhere). We proceeded to cautiously enter the room, making sure not to touch the gold. Immediately, Aragorn and Dranelian fell victim to another trap: the floor slid back, dropping them into a pit filled with thousands of rats. By the time Nenaunir managed to get down there, ward off most of the rats with a Wall of Ice spell, and bring them out of the pit, both of them were already dead. Nostrakan managed to successfully resurrect Dranelian, but Aragorn was dead forever.

These are the two rises of the Cloven Spire.


After the tragedy in Room 4, we appear to have stopped the game. Eventually my friend would have left the Cloven Spire (the tunnel from area 1) and worked his way to the Great Spire. But neither he nor I recall finishing the game.

Though apparently we did, because a month later he recorded a non-detailed description of his D&D characters officially “retiring” after eleven years. This was our last game, but he didn’t get into any details:

Monday, July 15, 1991

Last weekend Loren came over. We played Dungeons & Dragons (my characters’ last adventure, and it was successful; now they will retire and live happily ever after), watched Warlock on the VCR, played Shogun on the IBM, and went to see Terminator 2: Judgement Day (awesome!).

Was this last adventure “Mount Gundabad, Part 2?” Maybe so, but we honestly don’t remember.

In any case, this was fun to relive. Six out of nine characters making it to high levels — and then a well-earned retirement — over an eleven-year period. Keep a diary if you play D&D, especially if you’re young! I can’t stress how much I wish I had done this myself from an early point. Going back to old adventures is powerful nostalgia.

The Lost City: Eyebite

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 Ten:

                                      Eyebite

 

William Byers saw too much, heard too little, and did next to nothing. It came with being a god. From the moment the Eye had attached itself to him, the Sight was so overwhelming that it drowned the other senses; made usual interactions – hell, normal life – impossible.

He felt almost nothing either, except for the splitting headache that came and went. If he looked anywhere distant – whether into the past, present, or future – the headache vanished. If he focused on what was in front of him, the pain was so bad it was debilitating. The Eye wasn’t made for sights that simple.

And he spoke not a word. He was in sensory overload; he saw too much and processed it constantly. His mind had no room or time for speech. When he tried talking, moans were the best he could manage.

Needless to say, Will resented visitors; hated company, craved solitude. Isolation was the only solace to his omniscience and his agony. He got what we wanted. Auriga made his prodigy inaccessible (for his own nefarious reasons) and watched over him with a territorial eye. Will didn’t mind. He found Auriga easy to ignore. The man was self-absorbed, and talked to himself more than to Will. And Will had no concerns for his safety. The Eye defended him from harmful intent – with black fire. Any more “training accidents”, and his teacher would be incinerated. And the chief mage knew it.

But he was dangerous: Auriga Sirkinos had ambitions that went beyond anything Demetrius suspected. Will hardly cared. It was a drop of water. Will saw the ocean. He saw everything.

The day after the quest to the Isle, he lay in bed for most of the morning, trying hard to shut out his environs. A single glance at anything in the room – the ceiling, the walls, his desk – was a nail bashed through the left side of his head. He drifted and let the Eye carry him away from the pain. He wanted to see Mike… Mike

… and saw him. He was with a girl Will had never seen. His omniscience filled in the details: a girlfriend, a new girlfriend, Mike’s very first. He had met her – no, been attacked by her – exactly a week ago down in the city, two days before Will’s fall. Mike and this girl – no, woman; Jilanka was her name – had fallen hard in love and ate mushrooms to feed their passions. They were naked on an altar now, clinging to each other, fucking (Will now understood the word’s full meaning), crying their pleasure, raking and bruising each other…

… then another vision. This one in the near future; it would happen in a few hours. Mike was in a room with a different altar. He stood before a crowd of women, offering them something he had no right to give away. Then he knelt before the Madaruan Champion. She was strong, beautiful, and stern, and she asked Mike hard questions. His answers were honest but self-serving. She took his offering. He took new vows. He received an unwanted gift. Disaster would follow days later…

… with Mike in another room, in front of yet a third altar. Wielding his sword against the Brothers. It played out the only way it could – and then turned worse. Will turned the tragedy off. Watching Mike hurt too much.

He looked elsewhere, submitting himself to randomness. His Eye gleamed and showed him:

… a rite that looked like Aztec sacrifice. Will had seen pictures of what the Aztecs did in his home world. But what he saw now weren’t brown skinned clerics chanting in the open sun. They were chalk white priests underground, wearing masks of animals and demons. The ritual was otherwise straight out of the American history books: a victim on an altar, held down as the high priest sliced open the chest and offered a still-beating heart to his god. Will left that room and coasted down corridors to sights just as ghastly. Activities of rape, torture, and cruel experiments – all for sheer enjoyment sake – went on everywhere in the Zargonite temple. Things far worse than what Mike had imagined as a dungeon master, when the Lost City was a game…

the sheeple. He’d seen them before, in his weekly trips to the city: the vast majority of citizens who resigned themselves to Zargonite rule, working fields, tending livestock, retreating into dreams and nightmares. Walling themselves behind masks of alternate identities: a mammal here, growling on all fours; a demon there, assaulting a hapless fool; a king of old, demanding that passersby bow to him; a hero of legend, defending a widow, demanding a shop owner give her free food. All of them hoping to avoid the sacrificial altar; grasping for redemption in madness…

… the wider world of the Cynidiceans. The nation they were once part of and still technically were: the Emirates of Yshia, six desert regions under rule of a caliph, reminiscent of the Islamic Middle-East. The Yshians followed the religion of the prophet al-Kalim, and waged holy war on any who believed differently. The Cynidiceans had been out of contact with the Yshians for centuries. That was about to change. Last year the capital had fallen to a jihad, and Yshlimic Law was once again enforced strictly everywhere in the Emirates. Next year the Yshian forces would come to Cynidicea, and shatter its sense of isolated security. Will and Mike and many others would be swept up in the jihad‘s fires…

… the Isle he had just decimated. And from which they’d barely escaped. Will’s body had become a storm of wrath. But that had happened unintentionally, triggered when he was thrown into an army of undead. Right after the unspeakable surgery. Will couldn’t summon the Eyebite – the scream of annihilation – at will. And his omniscience was strangely silent on this point. The Eyebite was even harder to stop than start. Will should have gone on screaming until the whole island was blasted to bits and everyone died. Somehow Mike had brought him back. Whether by his embrace or his words or his thoughts…

Lucas. The resurrected “zoombie”. He had divided the Brotherhood into not two but three camps, none of whom had any grasp of his true nature. Will saw that nature and the consequences it would bring. Saw why the Isle had accepted Lucas, while its savage inhabitants rejected him. And saw the seed of the problem: Queen Zenobia, whose touch had tainted him with paradox…

… the bird man. Except the bird man was dead. Mike had bathed a lounge in his blood. This vision was in the past, in a place that looked like a cellar, probably in one of the city’s communal dormitories. The bird man had a boy beneath him on the floor, and was thrusting his hips against the boy’s bum. The boy was crying. Will felt a familiar nausea. His anger rose, beating on the back doors of his mind. No. He refused that demon entry. He turned the bird man off – but not before his stomach knotted, and he leaned over his bed to throw up on the floor.

Seeing the vomit pool on the floor put a nail through his head again. He moaned for Mike and wiped his mouth. Then he lay back in bed, closed his right eye, and tried to sleep.

 

His meals were served by a Magi named Prist. Shanti used to be the one to do him favors, but Shanti had been eaten by zoombies. His leftover body parts were scattered on the ruined isle. Prist was quiet and punctual. The meals never came late. But Will dreaded mealtimes. The food was fine, and he ate it because his body required it. But it was hard to not look at his food when he ate it. It hurt badly enough to see anything within thirty feet. Closer than two feet was like a dagger going under his eye again.

He developed a strategy to eat at his desk with the door to his room left open. He regarded his food and utensils only peripherally, while looking through the open doorway down the hall that extended just beyond fifty feet. It was tricky, and sometimes he couldn’t avoid glancing directly at his food. At one point during lunch on the second day, he looked at his spoon while eating his soup. The pain was so bad he nearly passed out.

Later that day, he replayed his initiation ceremony, watching it as an outsider. He could do that with the Eye: see events from any point of his life, from a “god’s view” above. Prist was the one who had branded him during the initiation ceremony. Will had knelt before the altar and recited the pledge: “I, William Byers, do hereby pledge to serve and obey the great Usamigaras.” The Magi, led by Auriga, had hailed their new colleague, and Prist had burned the five-pointed star into Will’s right palm. Shanti had then given him his silver mask of the cherub and rainbow-colored robe. Will had rarely worn his mask since then, except during temple rituals (required) and when he walked the city streets (lest everyone stop and stare). He knew that Mike and Lucas had a minimal mask policy too. How the Cynidiceans wore them around the clock was beyond Will.

He dozed, then woke later as the candlelight faded. He needed new candles. The shadows made the giant spider look alive, even through his peripheral vision. Will was no spider. He hardly moved and couldn’t speak to cast a spell. The Eye had erased his achievements in a stroke.

I… am… a… mage.

He wasn’t even sure he was that anymore. What good was wizardry if he knew it but couldn’t use it? If the only magic he could use was too mighty for the world to withstand?

 

On the the third day after the quest, Auriga spent the evening with him. He was sitting at Will’s desk and had put Will across from him in the guest chair. Will tried not to see Auriga in focus, looking past him as if at a point through the wall. He saw Auriga every moment anyway, and nothing in that view was pleasant.

The chief mage was euphoric about the open clash between the Brothers and Maidens. Today he wouldn’t shut up about it.

“I may have to reward your friend Mike after all,” he said, opening a wine bottle. It was a good vintage he’d paid gold coin for. “He’s making our job easier.”

On the stone table Will had looked into Auriga’s heart and seen how black it was. Demetrius had been more than right in his suspicions. Auriga had not only murdered his predecessor Keldor (and buried the bloated body out on the desert surface), but he had also arranged the poisoning of Sinbar and the other two members of the Usamigaran stronghold. Different MOs, and enough collateral to confuse the scent of those, like Demetrius, who thought the worst of him.

“At first I thought Blackie was the smart one.” Auriga poured the wine into a goblet and waved the glass under his nose. “Hmm.” He took a long sip and smacked his lips, placing the glass on the desk. “Mike acted like a pussy on the Isle.”

Auriga’s stated goal, to use the Eye against the Zargonites, was a lie. His purpose was pure treachery: to annihilate the Brotherhood and Maidens. He hated his sibling cults far more than the Zargonites. Gorm and Madarua were authoritarian and thoroughly anathema to libertarian beliefs. Auriga wanted to eradicate their two cults, but could not afford to do that while they helped maintain the balance of power against the Zargonites. Without the Brothers and the Maidens, the Usamigarans couldn’t stand on their own; they would be easily destroyed. He needed the Eye to tip that power balance. With that kind of power in Magi possession, the Brothers and Maidens were superfluous. The offense of their existence could finally be obliterated.

“That negro is a tool,” said Auriga. “So self-righteous he makes me sick. The worship he gets is wholly unearned. But Mike – well, it looks like he has a pair after all. He saw an opportunity. Took the risk. I guess he’s just squeamish when it comes to you.” Auriga laughed. “Did you see his face go purple when I cut out your eye? I guess not; you weren’t seeing past my blade.” He sipped from the goblet. “But that negro – he has zero ambition.”

Auriga’s ambitions dated back almost two years, when he’d learned the Eye’s location on a fluke. There was a tome about Gaius in the Usamigaran library, and the part that described the resting place of the Eye and the Hand – supposedly the Catacombs – was actually a code. When deciphered, the text read that the Eye and Hand were on the Isle of Death. Auriga had been cracking codes since childhood, and was flabbergasted to have stumbled on this secret no other Magi had.

“You need to think ahead,” said the mage, swallowing more wine. “Seize the moment. And that’s what we’re going to do. I need to know what unlocks that scream of yours. You’re going to use it to kill every Brother and Maiden in this pyramid.”

Since he’d cracked the code, Auriga had thought ahead – with a vengeance. His scheme to retrieve the artifacts hinged on three things: (1) becoming chief of the Magi, so the Eye would fall under his charge; (2) acquiring a young student who could take on the Eye without dying or going insane; and (3) engineering a tip-off about the Isle from a source people would be inclined to believe.

“And then you’re going to kill every worthless shit in the Gormish and Madaruan strongholds.” Another gulp. “But not the Zargonites. Not yet. They’ve got their god on call, right in this pyramid. We’ll let them think we’re willing to share power. At least at first. Death has to meted out sparingly. And shrewdly.”

He’d been shrewd in killing Sinbar and Keldor, and making their deaths/disappearance look unrelated. After many moons of study and proving himself in the Magi, he’d poisoned Sinbar (and some additional collateral) with a blackface mushroom. A month after that – when he’d acquired enough experience to ensure his succession as the next chief mage – he poisoned Keldor with a jellybones mushroom. Keldor’s skeleton had liquified into mush, and Auriga buried the pile of flesh in the desert, so that his disappearance would remain a mystery. Four months later came the arrival of Will Byers: a child of twelve years who showed unprecedented skill with magic. He was a godsend; the perfect Eye-bearer. Once he had trained Will enough, all that remained was to plant the bait: his forged letter from Sinbar to Keldor, explaining the true location of the Eye and Hand. Months of planning paid off at last.

“They have the Hand.” He barked laughter. “The Hand is irrelevant. Let the Bastards and Bitches fight over pennies. And over Mike too, while they’re at it. He played a good hand” – the mage laughed uproariously at his pun – “but in the end he’s a tool, like Righteous Blackie.”

The Hand had been a pseudo concession on Auriga’s part in his alliance with the Brothers. The legends made clear that the Hand was powerful – more powerful than most artifacts – but trivial compared to the Eye. Call the Hand a grade-5 mushroom. The Eye was grade-50. The person who wore it was the functional equivalent of a god.

“What was it Blackie said? That I’d sell my own mother?” He laughed. “He was more right than he knew. I did sell my mother.”

Will tilted his head. Mother?

Auriga gulped the rest of his wine and poured another glass. “She was a toothless fart. A zit on the ass of the world. I gave her to the Zargonites for fifty gold.” He slurped more wine. “Gods know what they used her for, or what experiments. Must have gone on for days if they paid fifty gold. So much nasty shit goes on in that temple. But I’m sure it ended with her legs being spread for half a dozen priests – and then a lance up her pussy and out her throat.” He guffawed, spitting wine over himself. He kept laughing, unable to stop.

Will turned his head slightly, but avoided looking at Augira, or focusing on anything that would drive the nail back into his head. He made faces with his lips, blew out huffs of air, and croaked Mike’s name.

Auriga’s laughter subsided as he filled another glass. “She was the stupidest cow in the city. She deserved to be raped and gutted.”

An image rose from the bottom of Will’s omniscience – an image he feared to confront. Auriga’s ugly remarks coerced it from the pit. An image from another world. His home world.

“Mothers live to be the death of us all. Mine died so I could enjoy life for a change.” He belched. “Wish I could have seen how they raped her on that altar.” He roared laughter again.

Mother?

Wrapped in his visions, Will had become intimately familiar with everything of this world. Auriga’s derision threw that comfort out of alignment. He saw in memory a face, of someone who had meant everything to him; a face that left him vulnerable, and like a match ignited his blood. His Eye throbbed, suspending all pain, and his face contorted. He turned fully around to face his mentor, and bared his teeth. The one word sufficed. He gasped it with the voice of a corpse: “Mo-ther.”

Auriga frowned and looked at him. When he saw Will’s face, his eyes widened and he stood. “Will? What’s the matter? Calm yourself, boy.”

Boy.

Will was no boy. He was a man of centuries old. Steeped in the darkest magic. And his name wasn’t Will – or at least it wasn’t right now. Could this dolt not see it in his Eye? He stiffened and shook in his chair.

“No!” shouted Auriga, holding up his hands. “Stop this! I am NOT your enemy! Calm yourself and desist!”

Will laughed like a ghoul, his body filling with tremors. “Caaaaaaaalm. De-siiiiiiiiiiiist.” Parroting his mentor for the last time.

“I say again, Will, I’m your friend!” The mage was sweating and looked desperate. “We have important things to do, you and I. For the Magi.”

Will had friends and this wasn’t one of them. No one who did that to his mother could be counted a friend. In the chair his body convulsed. Rage hiccuped in every muscle. And when he bared his teeth again like a rabid dog, Auriga bolted for the door.

“MOM!” screamed Will.

She would be appalled at what her son had become in this world – the avatar of death sitting here now. But surely she would approve the slaying of this matricidal trash. His scream arrested Auriga’s flight and suspended him above the floor. Then, as the mage begged for his life, Will let loose as he had on the Isle, with a violent scream that thundered throughout the whole tier. One minute and then two. Auriga’s legs shattered. His arms snapped. His teeth flew out his mouth. He was quartered while hanging in the air. Then, his body parts fell wetly to the floor.

The Magi were already shouting in the hall and pounding on the door. Will couldn’t stop the devastation. His desk blew apart in splinters. The tapestry shred; the spider dissolved. His bed mattress and pillow exploded – feathers rained everywhere. And still he went on, hurling his rage as if every square inch of his bedroom mortally offended him.

This time, Mike wasn’t here to bring him down.

 

 

Next Chapter: Farewell, Friend

(Previous Chapter: The Isle)

Those ’80s Films… Even the Best of Them

Quentin Tarantino is solid. He doesn’t let the PC police faze him, or ideology get in the way of his art. Recently he’s gone after ’80s films, much in the same way I have; I’m convinced now that he and I are kindred souls. From two of his recent interviews, he says:

“The ’50s and the ’80s were the worst time for American movies. In the ’50s it was just the way society was. In the ’80s it was self-censorship, in response to the ’70s, where film makers went as far as they could. Everything in the ’80s was suddenly watered down. In ’70s films characters weren’t necessarily the heroes, but they were compelling and interesting. In the ’80s you couldn’t say shit if you had a mouthful. In the ’80s the most important thing about main characters was that they were likeable. And even a film that pushed the envelope and tried to do chancy things, it could do so for only part of the film before it pulled back and ‘apologized’ for it…”

“The decade of the ’80s was the decade of ‘they won’t let you do that’. We’re going through the ’80s Part 2 now [in the 21st century], except there’s more of a McCarthy-esque blacklist aspect to it. In the ’80s film makers just did it to themselves, whereas today people are doing it to you as a film maker. And it was only happening in America in the ’80s; everywhere else in the world was bold cinema. And that’s the kind of film I wanted to make when starting my career [in the early ’90s]. When I was told ‘they won’t let you do that’, I said, ‘Well, who are they?’ And I never let that stop me, and by doing that, I and others changed film making in the ’90s. [Starting with Reservoir Dogs.] The ’90s films stopped being ‘politically correct’ [by ’80s standards], and started taking risks again.”

I came of age in the ’80s and simply can’t watch most of the films I grew up on. They’ve aged horribly and I wonder how I ever enjoyed them. By pre- or post-’80s standards they come off as censored or sanitized in the way Tarantino describes, with facilely (and predictably) happy endings. They tend to be family friendly, aligning with the family-value era of Ronald Reagan. Chris Maltezos wrote a dissertation called “The Return of the 1950s Nuclear Family in the Films of the 1980s”, in which he focuses on two particular ’80s films, Ordinary People and E.T., noting the re-emerging importance of father figures, and the lasting bonds between children and their parents. I’ll make similar observations in my case studies below.

But let me preface this by saying that obviously not everything from the ’80s was bad. The rot hadn’t fully set in until ’83. Some films from ’80-’82 were brilliant extensions of ’70s-style cinema. Think of The Shining (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Evil Dead (1981), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Blade Runner (1982). Many of those are masterpieces, and all are ’70s films at heart. (Whereas Conan the Destroyer (1984), Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and The Evil Dead 2 (1987) are “pure ’80s”, and as awful as their predecessors were excellent.)

There were good films between ’83-’89 too, but they were exceptional, and not entirely free of ’80s tropes. Even the best film makers couldn’t escape the baggage. The self-censorship that Tarantino speaks of is quite evident when you watch them today. I’ll focus on three films I deeply admire (Near Dark, Blue Velvet, and After Hours) and then one that almost everyone loves but I don’t (Aliens).

Near Dark (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow’s horror-western is the perfect vampire film — or almost. There’s no seductive glamorizing of the bloodsuckers; it’s a very violent and nihilistic tale and holds up well against the typical dreck horror of the ’80s. But there is the happy ending that sticks out: Caleb has been given a blood transfusion by his father (who does transfusions with farm animals) which saves him and makes him human again. After the nasty showdown with the other vamps — and Mae almost burns to ash in the sun — she too is given a transfusion by Caleb and returns to humanity. The epilogue points to their happy future under the roof of Caleb’s father, where vampire horrors will be a distant memory.

Had Bigelow made this film in any other decade, I guarantee she would not have conceived this cheesy ending. In a ’70s horror film like this Caleb and Mae would have stayed vampires, and one (or both) of them likely met a tragic end — dying in the sun, stake through the heart, whatever. As a ’90s film, Caleb and Mae would have also stayed vampires, and perhaps left the other vamps that had been Mae’s family, to go rogue as a lover duo. The film is so great that you can forgive the conclusion catering to nuclear family values, but it does stand out awkwardly from a post-’80s perspective.

Blue Velvet (1986)

The darkest and most perverse anti-’80s film of the ’80s is, for my money, Blue Velvet. If there’s any director who refuses to self-censor in any time, it’s David Lynch. And yet even he — in even this hideous tale of mean sexual brutality that pulls no punches — ends Blue Velvet in a non-Lynchian way that panders to the nuclear family. After the mystery is solved and Frank Booth is killed, all is well that ends well. In the epilogue, everyone is gathered on a sunny day at the home of Jeffrey’s father. Jeffrey’s girlfriend Sandy looks out the window and sees that the robins of her dreams have come to the yard. She has forgiven Jeffrey for all his subterfuge. This scene is juxtaposed with Dorothy, who after her captivity and sexual abuse under Frank is now free and reunited with her young boy: happy for the first time in ages, restored to motherhood and mental health.

I should emphasize that I like Blue Velvet‘s ending. Not all happy endings are bad; some are well earned, and unlike Near Dark’s, Blue Velvet‘s is genuinely moving. It’s an earned payoff to all the suffocating despair that came before. Nonetheless, I doubt that Lynch would have written this ending had he made Blue Velvet in any other decade. Had it been a film of the ’70s or ’90s, Jeffrey would have walked away at the end, alone and shattered by everything he’d experienced. Lynch’s track record speaks for itself: Blue Velvet is his only film with “all is well that ends well”.

Consider: Eraserhead (1977) was ’70s nihilism from start to finish. Wild at Heart (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) were flat repudiations of the family-centric ’80s. In Wild at Heart, Lula’s mother tries to have Lula’s boyfriend killed, and in the end, Lula is finally able to reject her mother as she reunites with her boyfriend Sailor; the photograph of her mother sizzles and vanishes, signaling Lula’s liberation from the woes of her biological family. Fire Walk With Me is about Laura Palmer’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father, who in the final terrible scene murders Laura. (Laura’s mother is dysfunctional too.) These films are impossible to imagine on screen in the ’80s.

Next came Lost Highway (1997), with a nihilistic ending about a man’s permanent imprisonment in denial. Soon after that Mulholland Drive (2001), which finished on Diane being terrorized by hallucinations of her parents, causing her to shoot herself in her own bed. That’s about as anti-nuclear family as one can imagine, and the kind of depressing ending we expect from Lynch.

Even Lynch’s G-rated Straight Story (1999) (G-rated films are family-friendly by definition, so this one would hardly count much anyway), while ending on a man reunited with his brother after years of estrangement, doesn’t portray that ending as exactly happy. His brother looks at him but is unable to say anything; and the film abruptly ends. The Straight Story is an odyssey; the ending is an ambiguous epilogue that leaves questions open about the possibility of a reconciliation.

After Hours (1985)

In Martin Scorsese’s case the self-censorship involves a genre shift. Never in the ’80s did he make anything like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), or Raging Bull (1980) (the last of which was a 70s film to the core, despite its release in 1980). We’d have to wait for the ’90s and beyond to get Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Gangs of New York, (2002), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010), and The Irishman (2019).

What we got instead from Scorsese was what the ’80s had in abundance: comedy and sports: The King of Comedy (1982), After Hours (1985), and (for sports) The Color of Money (1986). These were capped off by a horrible imagination of the historical Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1989) (which should have been a comedy like The Life of Brian). The ’80s decade was the undeniable nadir of Scorsese’s career. The Color of Money was especially mainstream for him, showing Tom Cruise playing billiards in the blandest most conventional narrative.

But I do like After Hours. It’s a comedy that hits my sweet spot; a very dark one about a guy who gets sucked into a surrealist nightmare. He loses his money, causes a suicide, becomes a suspect in a bunch of robberies, and turns the neighborhood against him. It’s edgy and nervy by ’80s standards, though hardly by Scorsese’s own standards. But these are the limits he apparently allowed himself. He couldn’t have made a Goodfellas or a Cape Fear in the ’80s. Cinema was too sanitized for that stuff.

Aliens (1986) — as compared to Alien (1979) and Alien 3 (1992)

And now for a film I don’t like: Aliens. It’s really just Alien on steroids, throwing umpteen of the horrors against a bunch of mercenaries who sign on to risk their lives anyway. Alien was a masterpiece of ’70s sci-fic terror. Aliens is a crowd pleaser with a happy ending (by Alien-franchise standards), with its most likeable characters — Ripley, Hicks, and Newt — surviving against every odd. Ripley is a maternal figure in Aliens who saves the innocent child.

Alien 3, for all its problems, is at least a return to ’70s seriousness. It’s bleak and misanthropic, with no likeable figure save Ripley, and even she’s a bit hard to warm to this time around. The opening scene — right from this starting point, I knew I’d like Alien 3 — reverses the happy ending of Aliens, by killing off Hicks and the child Newt whom Ripley went through Hell and back to save. As if to give the ’80s a deliberate finger, Ripley’s surrogate family is obliterated from the get. The ugly depths of the human condition are on display everywhere in the film. Charles Dutton plays a rapist and killer of women whose faith makes him a very unlikely hero, though a very interesting one. Ripley herself dies at the end.

To the repeated claims that Aliens is the rare sequel that’s better than the first film, I say hogwash. It’s not even close, and I even prefer Alien 3 to Aliens. David Fincher is leagues ahead of James Cameron, and he made his film a stalk-and-slash horror in the same vein as Alien,‭ ‬with Ripley having few weapons to rely on. He tried to bring back menace to the franchise, and while he only half succeeded (the dog-like alien wasn’t especially scary), he still made a decent film. All Cameron made was a blockbuster tailored for ’80s sensibilities.

Patriotism = Teaching Our History Honestly

Time Magazine has run an article called “Loving Your Country Means Teaching It Honestly”, and I couldn’t agree more. One reason I did a thorough ranking of the U.S. Presidents was to show the deficiencies of blind patriotism on the one hand, and leftist mudslinging on the other, and to show why many of the presidents commonly thought of as excellent or good were in fact only average or bad, and vice versa. Today, for Independence Day, I spotlight ten presidents who have been immortalized in our collective memory — whether on dollar bills, coins, Mount Rushmore, or memorials — and show how these leaders were average at best, disasters at worst.

Thomas Jefferson. 3rd president, 1801-1809, Democrat-Republican.

He’s on Mount Rushmore, the $2 dollar bill, and the nickel. He admittedly deserves these honors when judged by what he did prior to his presidency and during his first term. But he doesn’t deserve them when judged by his second term.

Why we should kneel before him

  • Wrote the Declaration of Independence (prior to his presidency).
  • Turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated massively from the promises of the founding fathers, not least in the suppression of free speech.
  • Smashed the Barbary Pirates who were attacking innocents in the name of Islam — America’s first defensive war against jihad terror.
  • Expanded American territory by purchasing the Louisiana region from France.

Why we might piss on his grave

  • Zealously enforced the Embargo Act of 1807 — an act of commercial warfare meant to punish Britain and France, but which only punished the United States. The American people starved thanks to Jefferson. Farmers couldn’t export their crops and workers lost their jobs. Under few presidents has the American population actually starved directly because of presidential incompetence.
  • Violated civil liberties, using oppressive measures to stop food smugglers who defied the embargo. Without warrants, his searches, seizures, and arrests were the acts of a police state, not a republic. Jefferson is widely known today for being a proponent of limited government, but in his second term he wielded executive power with abusive glee.

James Madison. 4th president, 1809-1817, Democrat-Republican.

He’s on the $5000 dollar bill. (I’ll bet you all have one of those.) Like Jefferson, Madison was great as a founding father, but left a bit to be desired as president.

Why he was a giant

  • Wrote the blueprint for the U.S. Constitution (prior to his presidency).
  • Preserved people’s liberties through the War of 1812, unlike almost every other president who presided during a major war (John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

Why he was small and ineffectual

  • Took the new and weak American nation into war with Britain — the War of 1812, which was unnecessary and avoidable.
  • Because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in its 240-year history (aside from 9/11). Washington DC was burned, and when the war was over, little had been solved. The Star Spangled Banner (composed toward the end of the war) may sound inspiring, but there was nothing inspiring about the war’s cause or Madison’s leadership during the crisis.

Andrew Jackson. 7th president, 1829-1837, Democrat.

He’s on the $20 dollar bill. He needs to be effaced, and the native hero Osceola imprinted in his place. Jackson was truly a piece of shit. Even when he did the occasional right thing (like vetoing the Second National Bank), he did it for the wrong reasons — to settle personal scores with political rivals whom he wanted to kill.

What made him good for the nation’s welfare

  • Vetoed the Second National Bank. For decades afterwards the American people were better off without this corrupt national banking system which destroyed state banks at a stroke by calling in their loans, and gave wealthy owners a large return with little risk.
  • Balanced the federal budget to a zero national debt. Jackson was the only president in history who did this.

What made him a flaming asshole

  • Began the spoils system, resulting in rank amateurism and unearned privileges in civil service, which wouldn’t be fixed until 54 years later, with Chester Arthur’s Pendleton Act (in 1883).
  • Rammed through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal, and infringing on free speech. All presidents before Jackson accepted slavery (more or less) as an institution of the times, but Jackson was the first active pro-slavery president.
  • Signed the Indian Removal Act, leading to the Trail of Tears. Jackson was responsible for more pain and suffering on the part of the Natives than any other president. He gave the middle finger to the Supreme Court, the highest authority in the land, in order to uphold a state’s right to nullify Indian treaties.
  • Started a reckless fiscal war with Nicolas Biddle (the last president of the Second National Bank), which led to the Depression of 1837.

Abraham Lincoln. 16th president, 1861-1865, Republican.

He’s on Mount Rushmore, the $5 dollar bill, and the penny. He’s also enshrined as a demigod, and almost always rated the #1 president on presidential ranking lists. But there is far less to this son of a bitch than meets the eye. Kids are never taught about the real “Honest Abe” in school. Thanks to the Civil War and subsequent military Reconstruction of the South (under Grant, see below), there was the prolonged backlash of the KKK and Jim Crow laws, both of which ensured that blacks would be subject to a discrimination almost as bad as in slave times. It would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act (of 1964) came in remedy.

His great legacy

  • Liberated the slaves. Even though he did this in the worst way possible — in a needless war that got hundreds of thousands of people killed, including blacks — he did put an end to the abominable practice that is anathema to a free society.

His mountain of shit that most Americans are blind to

  • Maneuvered the South into starting the Civil War and making them fire the first shot. The Civil War was absolutely unnecessary to free the slaves. Lincoln could have (1) let the South go in peace, as the abolitionists urged, or (2) offered southerners compensation for the emancipation of slaves, which other countries (like Britain and Mexico) had done. Under the first option, industrialization and rising moral objections would have eventually peacefully eliminated slavery in the South, helped out by a slave haven in the free North. Under the second option (which I’d have preferred), Lincoln would have ended slavery as other countries had ended it (Britain in the 1833-38 period, and even “backwater” Mexico in 1829). The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were Blacks.
  • Treated the Native Americans horribly, even by 19th-century standards, seizing one of the largest portions of land from the Indians, running the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches out of their New Mexico territory and into a reservation 450 miles away. On top of that, Lincoln authorized the largest mass execution in United States history, which totaled 38 Indians.
  • Arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the Civil War, and threw them into prison; closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and also disappeared citizens without arrest warrants, detaining them without allowing them to challenge their detention — a violation of habeas corpus. The only other president who trampled on habeas corpus was George W. Bush.
  • Brought the pernicious “American System” (invented by Federalist Alexander Hamilton and promoted by Whig Henry Clay) into full-blown fruition, mostly in order to finance his needless Civil War. The program involved government subsidies financed by high tariffs, and a runaway money supply of printed greenbacks that weren’t redeemable by gold or silver; the result was massive inflation.

Ulysses Grant. 18th president, 1869-1877, Republican.

He’s on the $50 dollar bill. While his heart was in the right place, the road to Hell is often paved with good intentions.

Why we should sing his praises

  • Intervened in the Black Friday Gold Panic of 1869, when two investors tried to corner the market. Thanks to Grant’s intervention, a national recession was averted.
  • Reversed Lincoln’s easy-money policy (see above). Thanks to Grant (and his successor Rutherford Hayes), America prospered for decades with a hard money policy.

Why we should curse him to Hell

  • Tried to pass laws and enforce them at gunpoint in the South. Grant made things worse for the blacks he was trying to defend. Because of his harsh Reconstruction efforts, the KKK became a terrorist group and Jim Crow laws were foreordained.
  • Was unable to uphold the progressive bills he signed for blacks in any meaningful way. On top of that, Grant was hypocritical; he tried having the southern blacks deported off the American continent to the Dominican Republic.
  • Was responsible for some of the worst Indian massacres and injustices in history. He vocally opposed genocide, but it was mostly for show, and he had no problems with ethnic cleansing on a large scale as its “peaceful” alternative.

Grover Cleveland. 22nd & 24th president, 1885-1889 & 1893-1897, Democrat.

He’s on the $1000 dollar bill. He was president during the progressive era in the 1890s, but he black-heartedly opposed that agenda.

What made him a benevolent leader

  • Kept the nation at peace with excellent foreign policy, and refused to annex Hawaii. (The native Hawaiians didn’t want to be a part of the United States, and the treaty signed by Cleveland’s predecessor Benjamin Harrison had been foully obtained.)
  • Brought back the gold standard and hard money policies.

What made him a pile of manure

  • Vetoed 584 bills, making himself a one-man tyrant over an entire legislative body. No other president in history (save FDR) came close to wielding veto power like that.
  • Refused to help Civil War veterans, refused basically to help anyone at all, and refused to lift a goddamn finger to aid Americans suffering from natural disaster.
  • Shat on all the underdogs — blacks (he supported segregation as Constitutional, and refused to enforce the voting rights of African Americans), Chinese immigrants (he lobbied Congress to pass the Scott Act of 1888, which barred Chinese from reentering the U.S. if they left), women (he believed women had no place in politics and condemned the suffrage movement), and union workers (sent troops to break up the Pullman Strike of 1894, which was both shameful and illegal, as the governor of Illinois didn’t request any military aid). While Cleveland did give the Indians full citizenship, that actually ended up harming the Indian cause far more than helping it, since the Natives had to accept farming roles alien to them.

William McKinley. 25th president, 1897-1901, Republican.

This mammoth example of misguided intentions is on the $500 dollar bill. Because of him, America became a trans-world empire, and his decisions to “rescue” other nations resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

How he made America better

  • Brought immense prosperity by going on the gold standard.

How he made America toxic

  • Set the nation on a path to becoming the world’s policeman. His Spanish-American War (over Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam) was one of the worst wars ever fought, resulting in needless death and torture. And if the U.S. was in the Philippines to ensure that its people enjoyed peace and order, why not extend that logic to making the U.S. responsible for the peace and well-being of every nation on the planet? That’s indeed the logic that would come to dominate in the 20th and 21st centuries.
  • Sent troops to China for the Boxer Rebellion without Congressional approval, setting yet another bad precedent that would be followed by war-mongering presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries.
  • Annexed Hawaii on the pretext that Hawaiians could not govern themselves, against the wishes of the Hawaiians and Queen Liliuokalani. At first Congress rejected McKinley’s annexation treaty (for violating the spirit of the Declaration of Independence), but they hypocritically ended up approving it for strategic reasons, once the Spanish American War began.

Theodore Roosevelt. 26th president, 1901-1909, Republican.

He’s on Mount Rushmore but absolutely shouldn’t be. If McKinley set the precedent for America becoming the world policeman, Teddy Roosevelt set an even worse precedent — that it was okay for the president to ignore the Constitution he swore to uphold.

Good Teddy

  • Urged the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which was long overdue for the cause of sanitation and proper food labeling.
  • Set aside 230 million acres of land into public trust, for national monuments, parks, forests, bird refugees, and game preserves. Teddy was a good environmental conservationist.

Bad Teddy

  • Perverted the Monroe Doctrine and constantly meddled in other countries for lousy reasons.
  • Declared a group of black soldiers guilty until proven innocent. Teddy believed that blacks were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”.
  • Repeatedly flouted the Constitution, stating boldly that he could do anything he wanted “for the greater good”. While many presidents have flouted the Constitution, they usually try to obscure it or justify it somehow. Teddy was openly honest, stating that he could do what he wanted “for the greater good”. (Donald Trump is the first president since Teddy to be so drunk on his own self-regard; he too stated that he could “do whatever he wanted” as president — and that the Constitution itself gave him that license!)

Woodrow Wilson. 28th president, 1913-1921, Democrat.

This colossal zero is on the colossal one-hundred-thousand-dollar bill, and perhaps that’s fitting. Wilson symbolizes the massive amounts of dollars printed by the Federal Reserve. But he was an absolute zero — the absolute worst president in history — and it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see an executive disaster on this level again.

The good he did

  • Virtually nothing at all. He lowered tariffs; that’s about it. Some would say that he pushed for the Nineteenth Amendment, but that’s being too charitable. Wilson reluctantly advocated for women’s voting rights out of concern for his image, only after punishing such women.

The harm he did

  • Everything. He ruined the 20th century and beyond, and we’re still feeling the fallout today. If Wilson had kept America out of World War I (which he obviously should have), then the war would have ended sooner and for the better of all involved. History would have unfolded much differently. Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin were all monsters born of Woodrow Wilson’s policies.
  • Intervened elsewhere, just as aggressively and needlessly. Wilson was the most catastrophically interventionist president in U.S. history. He invaded Mexico, because — incredibly — a Mexican general refused to give a U.S. naval officer a twenty-one gun salute; he invaded Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and then Mexico again, repeatedly. These invasions were justified on the propaganda of “spreading democracy”, but really served neo-colonial interests like oil (in Mexico), collecting bank revenue (in Haiti and Cuba), and other greedy drives.
  • Mismanaged the Spanish Flu. He downplayed the impact of this deadly virus and refused to implement extensive health measures that medical professionals were recommending to help slow its spread. Between October 1918 and April 2020, 675,000 Americans were killed by the Spanish Flu.
  • Created the Federal Reserve, which shafts the working class with perpetual inflation and cheap credit, excessively expands the money supply, devalues the nation’s currency, is responsible for routine bailouts, and is unable to generate long-lasting economic recovery.
  • Crusaded for racist causes. Even by early 20th century standards, Wilson was a virulent white supremacist. He pushed for legislation to restrict the civil liberties of blacks. He put whites in jobs that his Republican predecessors had given to blacks, and he encouraged some of his cabinet members to re-institute racial segregation in federal agencies. Racial violence escalated during his administration, along with lynchings, anti-black race riots, and of course the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan.
  • Made his presidency the worst time in American history for civil liberties. The Espionage Act of 1917 made protests against the draft illegal, as well as criticism of American allies. The Sedition Act of 1918 made any speech, spoken or in print, illegal if it was critical of the war effort or any aims of the government. Wilson used the post office and Justice Department to suppress free speech, and ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph and telephone traffic. He fined and imprisoned thousands of citizens for criticizing the war. He even outdid John Adams and Abraham Lincoln in this regard.
  • In sum, by pushing the precedent set by McKinley to its extremes, Woodrow Wilson became president of the world more than of the United States. His catastrophic effect on both cannot be exaggerated.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 32nd president, 1933-1945, Democrat.

He’s only on the dime, but like Abraham Lincoln he has been enshrined in myth as a near demigod. School teachers tell kids that FDR led America into a great war for noble cause, pulled America out of the Great Depression, and championed civil rights. In fact, Roosevelt lied and sneaked America into war, for less than noble reasons, antagonized a foreign power which got American citizens killed, exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression, and committed some of the worst crimes against human rights and civil rights of any American president.

FDR at his best

  • Won the war. From our hindsight perspective, World War II needed to be fought and won. But this wasn’t obvious at time. Up to the end of 1941 (Hitler didn’t start his mass execution of the Jews until well into 1942), if you had been forced to side with either Germany or the Soviet Union on purely moral grounds, you should probably have sided with Germany. Stalin had murdered millions in the ’30s, and FDR knew of that when he decided to become Stalin’s bosom-buddy (and outrageously whitewashed his image as “Uncle Joe”). America ended up on the right side of the war quite by accident. All FDR cared about was Germany’s expansive ambitions. The important outcome was that he won the war, being on the right side, and prosecuted it very efficiently. He left it in the hands of competent generals (unlike Lincoln during the Civil War) and didn’t micromanage them.

FDR at his worst

  • Provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, getting both military personnel and civilians killed, thereby lying and sneaking America into a war that most Americans didn’t want to be involved in.
  • Created the New Deal. Aside from a few provisions, most of the New Deal was bad for the economy and prolonged the recession.
  • Avoided African American injustices like the plague, sent Jews back to Europe as if they were the plague, and contained Japanese Americans in camps as if they had the plague.
  • Used agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested the war.
  • Assaulted the Supreme Court by filling it with friendlies, and tried to add six justices to the court.

Ever since FDR especially, presidents have been evaluated by their charisma more than their actual policies. JFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were all charismatics, and so was Donald Trump for that matter (albeit a very boorish and crude charismatic). But charisma does not a good president make. We haven’t had a bona fide good president since Jimmy Carter, and before him Dwight Eisenhower.

We clearly need better role models than the ten presidents I’ve presented here who have been immortalized. Jefferson and Madison were okay overall, but the other eight were pretty abysmal. The only immortalized president who fully deserves his honors is (of course) George Washington. There are other excellent presidents, to be sure, but kids don’t learn much about them in school — John Tyler, Rutherford Hayes, and Warren Harding, for example — or if they do hear about them, it’s through a very jaded lens.

The Lost City: The Isle

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 Nine:

                                      The Isle

 

The island rose like an awful promise. A cairn of old rock, no more than a hundred twenty feet in diameter; a mound of homage to some terrible deed. Remarkably small, and yet reputedly more fatal than any place in the city. The longboat kept its distance as the crew watched and waited. Demetrius stood in the prow, readying himself for his task.

Mike hung back in the stern, feeling ruin close in on him. The whole mission seemed foolish now that they were here. He hadn’t risked his life like this since crawling the lower pyramid tiers. That first day – the last in Hawkins, Indiana – was an eternity ago. He and his friends had been twelve. Now only one of them was. Mike looked down at that person standing next to him. William Byers was the only member of the quest who appeared moderately calm. If anything happened to him, Mike would kill Auriga before Lucas could.

The twelve of them had assembled at the lakeside only minutes ago. The Usamigarans were six: Auriga (leading), Demetrius (priest), Shanti, Kemse, Lija, and Will. The Gormish also six: Lucas (leading), Atsu (priest), Mike, Dracut, Coval, and Azariah. Five Magi and a priest; five Brothers and a priest. The boat required four rowers. Lucas had assigned Dracut, Coval, Azariah, and himself. Azariah had strenuously objected to Lucas rowing: he was a deity, and a god did not deign to such tasks when he had others at his command. Mike should row, he said. Lucas reminded Azariah of The Creed of Gorm, which commanded even kings to assume servile roles – and as indeed Gorm had done as the first king of Cynidicea. Azariah had flushed red with shame and bowed to Lucas, accepting his chastisement.

“When will he start tripping?” asked Will quietly.

Mike watched Demetrius. “We’ll soon find out.”

Will looked up at him. “You never said how you learned about this trick.”

“Nor will I,” said Mike curtly. “You never said why a kid your age has a death wish. Now shut up.”

“Sure Mike,” said Will. “Whatever you say.”

The question of Will’s inclusion had almost killed the mission in its crib. Mike and Lucas had gone to the Magi yesterday in order to strategize with Auriga and Demetrius. When they entered Auriga’s chamber and saw Will there, they exploded.

“What the hell is this?” Mike had shouted.

“This,” said Auriga, “is my best student. I invited him to this meeting, and he will joining our mission.”

“Like hell he will!” said Lucas.

Auriga’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Watch yourself, warrior. You’re a guest over here.”

“He’s a kid, Auriga,” said Lucas, not intimidated by Auriga in the least. “He’s not going, no matter how many walls he’s climbed.”

“You can talk to me like I’m here, Lucas,” said Will.

Auriga placed a hand on Will’s shoulder as he faced Lucas. “The decision of who represents the Magi rests with me. I don’t run your house and you don’t run mine.”

Lucas shot back: “No decision regarding this mission can be made unless both you and I agree! Kanadius made that clear. Will’s participation requires my assent. I don’t give it.”

Demetrius cleared his throat. “Can I offer an opinion?”

“No, you can’t!” said Lucas.

“Well, I’m going to anyway,” said the priest. “I would respectfully submit that excluding Will would be severely disrespectful to both him and the Magi community. Will has proven himself to be a talented mage, to the extent of earning his own personal bed chamber. Even you – Gorm’s Chosen – share a room with Mike. The Magi love Will and have given him a special title. If Will is mature enough to have accomplished all this, then he’s surely mature enough to be assigned whatever task any of his colleagues take on. Don’t shame him by belittling him.”

“Nice words, Demetrius,” said Lucas, “but twelve years old is just that.”

“Unfit for life-threatening missions,” agreed Mike.

“Shut up, you guys!” yelled Will. “I’m going whether you like it or not!”

Well, well, thought Mike. Will’s grown some teeth.

Lucas was shaking his head. “Don’t get me wrong, Will. I’m proud of how far you’ve come in the Magi. I really am. But I’m not agreeing to this.”

“I don’t care if you agree or not,” said Will. “You’re not stopping me.”

“Indeed,” said Auriga. “I’ll suspend the mission if you really want to push this, Lucas. Will has been appointed, and that’s the end of it.”

Lucas had furiously relented, not having much choice. He had bottled his rage for the duration of their two hour-long meeting, and when he and Mike returned to the Brothers’ part of the tier, he seethed. In the revolving passage Mike asked him if we was okay. Lucas had finally answered:

“I’ll be fine, Mike. You just watch over Will when we’re at the Isle. Ignore what Kanadius said about protecting me. I’ve got every Brother yapping to be my personal bodyguard. Especially Azariah. If anything happens to Will, I’m going to kill both you and Auriga. Oh, and Demetrius too.”

“Are you kidding?” said Mike. “I’m already on that. Your ass isn’t worth protecting anyway.”

“Can you believe that fucking snake?” said Lucas. “He all but admits we’re walking into a trap, and he wants to take his precious Spider Child along for the ride. What the hell’s so important about Will coming along?”

“Auriga is a slippery shit,” said Mike. “It’s not beyond him to risk the life of his favorite student just so he can show him off in a mission like this.” They got off the revolving passage and headed up to their room on the second tier.

“You’ve been slippery yourself lately,” said Lucas. “Don’t think I’m blind to it.”

“Excuse me?”

“All your disappearing acts this past week. And I don’t buy for a moment – anymore than Demetrius did, I’m sure – that you just ‘overheard’ that explosive news about mushroom combinations.”

“I’m telling you, Lucas, I was in the candle shop, and a customer was going on about it.” Which was the truth: Mike and Jilanka had been shopping in that store on the day they met, when she explained the details of the drug combo that she had used to rape him in the alley.

“Yeah,” said Lucas. “And where have you been all week? You’re hardly ever in our room anymore.”

“Lucas, I told you -”

“Are you doing drugs?” Lucas asked bluntly.

“No!” said Mike, flushing red.

“So then who knows if drug combinations are really safe or not,” said Lucas. “Or if they can be switched on and off. Sounds like an urban legend. Demetrius is crazy to put it to the test tomorrow.”

Now everyone in the boat watched Demetrius closely. The Usamigarans had hopeful and approving looks, the Gormish less so, believing drugs to be an abomination. Demetrius had eaten his mushrooms back on shore, as the drug effects took anywhere between ten to forty minutes to kick in. When this combo kicked in, it would produce some interesting results.

They were rare priestly mushrooms, seldom seen outside the Temple of Zargon, and almost never in the hands of anyone except a Zargonite priest. Raen, the high priest of Usamigaras, had obtained a few of them off the black market. It was time to put a couple of them to use. Last night Demetrius had told him what Mike said about shrooms being safe and convenient when used in combinations, and so Raen had given him two shrooms for the island mission: a grade-1 priestly and a grade-3 priestly.

A grade-1 priestly mushroom enabled the eater to speak with dead souls or with undead. There was plenty of both on the isle, and who knows what they might reveal to someone asking them questions. A grade-3 priestly mushroom gave one the astounding power to spirit walk – to leave his physical body and travel about invisibly; or to have, in other words, “out of body experiences”. This was a perfect way of scouting the isle without setting foot on it – to get a peek at what was waiting there while everyone stayed safe in the boat.

Mike saw that Demetrius was staring out over the water. Lucas and Auriga stood close by him and Lucas asked him something. Demetrius nodded slowly. Then he looked back at Mike and beckoned him to the prow.

Mike swore. What does he want? Just get on with it. He went to the front of the boat and Will followed him. Will was under strict orders to stay close to Mike.

“Is it working?” asked Will when they got to the prow.

“Shit, is it working,” said Demetrius. He looked a bit dazed.

“Well, get going then,” said Mike.

“I already have,” said Demetrius. “Or rather Dustin has.”

“Say what?” asked Lucas.

Spirit walk lets the spirit leave the body. This body, as you know, is being shared by two spirits. I’m sending Dustin’s along. He asked me to this morning and I said yes. He wants to participate in the mission.”

“Well good for Dustin,” said Lucas. “He’s earning his keep for a change.”

“That’s not fair,” said Will.

“Hopefully he won’t bungle the job,” said Auriga. “Does he know what he’s doing?”

“Dustin cast a spell that brought him and his friends to this world,” said Demetrius. “Don’t underestimate him. He knows to be thorough and search the whole island.”

“Can you speak with any dead?” asked Lucas.

“Funny you ask,” said Demetrius. “I need a dead body or an undead creature present to do that.”

“Why is it funny I ask?” asked Lucas.

“Because this,” said the priest.

Lucas’s eyes widened. “Whoa,” he said.

“What happened?” asked Auriga.

“Demetrius just spoke to me in my head,” said Lucas.

“He has telepathy?” asked Mike.

Demetrius shook his head. “Not with anyone. Just the dead and the undead.”

“What do you mean?” said Lucas. “I’m not – oh, please!”

The Gormish priest Atsu had been listening closely and joined the conversation at the prow. “Indeed, you are undead, Lucas. Just as your Brothers have told you all along. But you’re not evil. Gorm has chosen you, as a zoombie, for special purpose.”

“Well, praise be to fucking Gorm,” muttered Mike.

Atsu whirled on Mike. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” said Mike, cursing himself for the impious slip.

“Blasphemy will not be tolerated!” boomed the priest. “Gorm will not be mocked!”

“Relax, Atsu,” said Lucas. “I’m sure Mike wishes to withdraw his vulgar remark and do whatever penance you prescribe.” He was glaring at Mike.

Fuck both of you. “Yes, of course. I meant no disrespect to our god.”

Atsu still looked affronted. “On your knees, Mike, and say the ‘Our Judge’ three times. And pray for the success of this mission as you atone for your impiety.”

Mike knelt and began praying. Not for himself but Lucas. He didn’t like the implications of the telepathic speech with Lucas. Or at least not from a mushroom that enabled communication with dead or undead. Mike had always thought the zoombie doctrine – and the Brothers’s phobia of resurrection – to be superstitious crap. And he knew Demetrius had thought it was silly too. He wondered what he thought about it now.

As he finished praying, Demetrius shouted to everyone on the boat: “He’s back!”

Everyone faced front and paid attention.

“Listen up!” said Demetrius to the entire crew. “I’m turning this body over to Dustin Henderson, so that he can report directly what he has seen on the island. You all know the story of Dustin and how I came to possess his body. But most of you have never heard him speak. He has a peculiar sense of humor, so you might be offended. Dustin, the show is yours.”

Dustin’s eyes blinked rapidly and then Dustin was in control. “Well, all-righty, everyone! It’s a privilege to be on this mission with you. And I’ll tell you that spirit-walking is one fucking hell of a trip. Jesus Christ. But I got to say this island’s reputation is either a hoax, or the undead inhabitants are invisible. I’ve passed over every square foot of the damn place – looked down into caves, everywhere – and I can’t spot a single creature. No skeletons, no zombies, no ghouls, nothing.”

“No tombs anywhere?” asked Auriga.

“Nada,” said Dustin. “The island is as barren as the desert surface.”

“What about Vark’s Ring?” asked Auriga.

They could see the ring of stone archways from where they were. They had stopped the boat about thirty feet from shore, and the archways were about forty feet inland. But no one could make out details or what was inside the ring.

“Well, this you’re going to like,” said Dustin. “Though maybe you shouldn’t. Inside those archways is a stone altar. Guess what’s on it?”

“The Eye and the Hand?” asked Auriga eagerly.

Dustin nodded.

“Are you serious?” said Lucas. “They’re just lying there out in the open?”

“No shit,” said Dustin. “I mean, this can’t be a more obvious trap. I think we should turn the boat around and go home.”

“Absolutely not,” said Auriga. “We came for Gaius’s artifacts and we’re leaving with them.”

“I agree,” said Lucas, “but Dustin’s right. No one has ever left this island, and two ultra-powerful artifacts are just sitting there begging to be taken. Ideas anyone?”

“Dustin, what do they look like?” asked Mike.

“Pretty fucking creepy,” said Dustin. “The Eye is all bloodshot and fleshy. I mean, it’s not a jewel or anything like that – it’s an actual human eye. The Hand looked withered and blackened, and also like real flesh.”

Mike once again wondered how these artifacts were wielded. Did their users wear them around the neck, like a talisman?

“As the legends say,” said Auriga. “They’re the real thing, all right.”

“Okay,” said Lucas. “So someone has gone through a lot of trouble to get us out here and take the Eye and Hand. They want us to have them. Maybe they are just lying there without any traps.”

“The traps are the Eye and Hand themselves,” said Atsu.

“And so I reiterate,” said Dustin. “We’re being played for fools and tools.”

“Perhaps so,” said Auriga. “But we’ve already weighed these risks, in hours of debate. The decision remains unaltered: we’re getting the Eye and Hand.”

“That we are,” said Lucas. “Enough talk. Team One, we’re going ashore. Team Two, hang back until we give the all clear.”

Lucas and Auriga had agreed to send in only half the mission at first. It would be foolish to sink all their eggs in one basket, given the isle’s reputation. If something ugly happened to Team One, then at least Team Two would be forewarned and forearmed.

The rowers brought the boat in more until they heard the scraping of rock and stopped. Then Team One debarked and started wading ashore: Lucas, Atsu, Dracut, Shanti, Kemse, and Lija. They were bravely taking the biggest risk.

Team Two stayed in the boat: Auriga, Demetrius (now Dustin), Mike, Coval, Azariah, and Will. Each team had a commander (Lucas or Auriga) as well as a priest (Atsu or Demetrius), and three representatives from each cult. Mike had known that it would be Lucas riding the first wave and not Auriga. The chief mage was a despicable save ass. There had been no question of allowing Will to put himself on the front line. Mike’s place was by his side. Mike wondered why Demetrius hadn’t reasserted himself in Dustin’s body.

The team reached the shore. Lucas turned around and waved at the boat, indicating they were okay so far. He began leading them up the slope of the isle.

Mike was all nerves. Everyone in the boat watched the isle closely.

“Lucas is brave,” said Will.

“He is Gorm come again,” said Azariah with pride. “He was the first to step on the isle and he will be the last to leave it.”

I wish he was Gorm, thought Mike. We could use a god on this cursed rock.

“Uh-oh,” said Dustin.

Everyone gasped.

Something was happening on the slope. The team members had stopped and were acting strangely. Their bodies shook and their heads jerked about. They dropped their weapons. One of them – it looked like Lija the mage – clutched the sides of her head, croaking something inaudible. Someone else, the warrior Dracut, began having an epileptic seizure. The priest Atsu fought himself in vain, falling to the ground. Then they all collapsed and began shrieking like animals.

All except Lucas. He was still himself and had his sword drawn. He shouted at his team members, desperately trying to reach them – when Atsu suddenly stood up and lunged at him like a rabid beast. Lucas barely leaped back in time. He must have been horrified but he didn’t hesitate: he ran the priest through with his sword, yanked the blade free, and then chopped Atsu’s head off.

Then the others were on him.

Chaos erupted on the boat as everyone urged a different course of action. Mike shouted at Lucas to come back. Coval advised rushing the shore to aid Lucas. Azariah was on his knees, crying praises to Lucas/Gorm, insisting this was proof that Lucas was the god – the only one who could stand safely on the isle. Will was screaming Shanti’s name, and begging Lucas not to kill his friend. Auriga said they should calm down and keep watching the shore; there was nothing to be done for their former friends; they were undead now and lost.

Dustin ignored them all – and leaped over the prow.

“Dustin!” yelled Mike. “Don’t!”

Dustin splashed thigh-deep into the water. He called back at everyone in the boat: “Stay there and wait! I have an idea!”

Mike couldn’t believe this. They were all going to die. Demetrius, where the fuck are you?

On the shore, Lucas dispatched two more of the savage undead. One of them was Shanti, and Will fell to his knees, sobbing hysterically. By the time Dustin arrived on the shore, Lucas had slain all five. He saw Dustin and started shouting furiously, waving him back. Dustin held up something in his hand. The necklace. Of course.

A stupid gamble, you idiot.

Dustin’s necklace warded against undead attacks and kept undead creatures fifteen feet away – the five who were now slain would not have been able to assault Dustin as they did Lucas – but there’s no way Dustin (or Demetrius) could have known that the necklace would protect anyone from turning into an undead after stepping on the island. It certainly hadn’t protected them from the terror gaze of a ghost who aged them into adults. Dustin was lucky.

Mike watched as Dustin and Lucas conferred on the shore. Will’s wailing and Azariah’s pious chants were driving him insane. He grabbed Will and pulled him up. He didn’t want to do this but he had to.

“On your feet, Will,” he said bluntly. “And get your shit together. You don’t get to scream about your rights to come on this mission and then cry like a kid when your friends get killed.” He is a kid, you asshole. He needs his mom and Jonathan. But Will had consciously rejected that option. He wanted with all his heart to be a mage. So be it. “Any one of us could die. Me. Dustin. Lucas. Be ready for that someday. You’re the Spider, and spiders don’t cry or make obnoxious noise. They’re silent and deadly. Understand?”

Will nodded, quieting down.

And if Will is the Spider, and Lucas the Chosen, and Dustin the Holy Vessel, what does that make me? As far as Mike could tell, he was the Twice Traitor, who savored the Zargonite drug and slept with the enemy. A fine one to lecture.

There was a cry from the shore. Lucas and Dustin had resolved their argument, and Lucas was giving the signal.

Auriga addressed everyone on the boat. “Now it’s our turn. Apparently Dustin’s necklace will protect us if we stay close to him – within fifteen feet. Let’s go.”

They all left the boat – Auriga, Coval, Azariah, Mike, and Will – and went ashore. Dustin came right down to the waterline to ensure their protection. Then they went up the slope to where Lucas looked over the dead bodies.

“What are they, Lucas?” asked Mike.

“No undead I’ve ever seen,” said Lucas, shaking his head.

“Zoombies,” said Dustin.

“Yes,” said Auriga.

“What?” said Azariah.

“Zoombies,” repeated Dustin. “Zombies that can move fast – even faster than mortals. But where are they all? Where do they dwell? When I spirit walked, I didn’t see any of them – any creatures at all – anywhere on the island.”

“I don’t know, but they’re savage,” said Lucas. “Strong as motherfuckers. Lija and Kemse were frail women, but when they turned, they were as strong as Kanadius.”

“You beat them, sir,” said Coval.

“If this had happened two months ago, or even one month ago, they might have torn me apart,” said Lucas. Ninety days in the Brotherhood had made him and Mike formidable warriors.

Azariah was distressed. “But, sir!” he said. “These cannot be zoombies, as Dustin claims. Zoombies are raised by the blasphemy of resurrection, and the result is more subtle – less ferocious. Like the body you have chosen to reveal yourself in.”

Mike couldn’t help himself. “That’s superstitious crap! Resurrection doesn’t turn people into undead.”

Azariah drew his sword. “Sir,” he said to Lucas, his eyes never leaving Mike’s, “I request the right to avenge Mike’s insult.”

Lucas stepped between them. “Azariah, put away your sword. Mike, put away your opinions. We have a job to do here.”

“But sir!” shouted Azariah. “He denies The Creed of Gorm – your creed! – and contradicts our doctrine!”

And then Lucas one-upped Kanadius. He sucker punched Azariah and sent him flying backwards. For the third time in two days, Azariah was on the ground with a bleeding mouth.

Lucas stood over the fanatic. “Question me again, for any reason at all, and you’ll be joining this pile of corpses. Am I clear?”

Azariah scrambled to prostrate himself on his knees. “Yes sir!” he screamed.

“Not trying to stir the pot,” said Dustin, “but I confess I don’t know what to make of resurrection. You’re clearly not like these animals who attacked you, Lucas. On the other hand, you can walk this island safely. You don’t need my necklace protection. The island accepts you, even if its inhabitants don’t.”

“A fascinating paradox I admit,” said Auriga. “But as Lucas said, we have a job to do. Let’s get up to the Ring.”

They all agreed and went to the top. Lucas led them, and everyone followed near Dustin. At the island’s center they came to the arches.

“Wow,” said Dustin.

“Stonehenge,” said Will.

It was indeed a Stonehenge-like group of arches made from large stone blocks. Mike knew from the gaming module that they dated from the time before the Cynidiceans excavated the Lost City. But no one knew their original purpose.

Lucas was looking through one of the arches. “I see the altar you mentioned, Dustin.” He squinted. “Yeah… the Eye and Hand are there.” He faced everyone. “All right, people, this is what we came for. I’m going in first. Wait for my signal.”

What we came for. We came for punishment, is what we came for. For pride, if not treachery. He realized then that he did love Jilanka – and wished they’d never met.

As Lucas went under an archway, Mike half-expected a wall of fire to appear and incinerate his friend on the spot, but nothing happened. Inside the circle, Lucas approached the stone altar, but he didn’t touch or take anything. He turned and looked around inside. After a minute he called everyone in.

They filed through the same archway, in an order that kept Dustin strategically placed: Auriga, Will, Mike, Dustin, Coval and Azariah. In the circle they fanned out while keeping close. It was a thirty-foot diameter area, and the altar was a five by ten-foot stone table.

Everyone saw the body parts and fell silent. No one moved or spoke for over a minute. Mike’s heart began to race. He remembered making love last night on an altar just as forbidden. And his silent vow.

“The Gifts of Gaius,” Auriga breathed in awe. “I hardly dared believe it.”

The Eye and Hand were much as Dustin had described them: a hideous looking bloodshot eye, and a withered blackened hand. They didn’t look like magical artifacts. They looked like serial killer trophies.

“I don’t get it,” said Mike. “How are you supposed to use these things?”

“We’ll worry about that later,” said Lucas. “Right now I just want to pick the damn things off the table without getting blasted by a death spell.” He looked at Auriga. “Well?”

Auriga cast a spell that identified magic and traps. When he was finished he shook his head. “The altar appears harmless.”

Lucas breathed deeply. “Shall we do this then? Same time?”

Auriga nodded, his eyes hungry.

As one, the Magi Chief and Gorm’s Chosen reached and claimed their prizes. Auriga lifted the Eye and held it reverently. Lucas took the Hand and inspected it. Everyone else looked around nervously, fearing a sudden attack of some kind.

“Mike,” said Lucas.

Mike nodded, taking from his belt the bag of holding that belonged to the Brotherhood, and to which he’d been entrusted. Lucas handed over the Hand, and Mike almost cried out revolted. It felt cold, rubbery, and repulsive. He dropped it in the bag of holding and fastened it back at his belt.

“Guard it with your life,” said Lucas.

Oh, I will. And you’ll never forgive me for it.

Will was taking out his own bag of holding to secure the Eye for Auriga, when the archways started to glow. Coval was the first to notice and shouted a warning. The stones were turning red as burning coals. And in the space of the eight archways, the air shimmered.

“Out of the circle!” yelled Lucas, leaping towards an archway. “Follow me!”

But it was too late. A second later the air under the archways turned a misty red, and hordes of savages poured through.

Zoombies.

And not dozens, but hundreds; the army which gave the Isle its name. They snarled and shrieked as they threw themselves at the altar thieves, only to be stopped by the power of Dustin’s necklace. Their eyes burned with madness; their mouths spat saliva strings surely crawling with contagion. They knew only one purpose, to kill and feed; and they never fled their prey.

“Jesus fucking Christ!” yelled Dustin. “We are certifiably in a world of shit!”

“Don’t panic!” shouted Lucas. “Stay close to Dustin!”

Everyone did that. Without the necklace, they’d be torn to shreds and eaten alive. The zoombies were so numerous that the horde extended halfway down the hill to the shore. There was no way of “walking through them” with the power of the necklace. They were stuck in the circle; protected but unable to leave.

Mike was enraged. “Dustin! Where the fuck is Demetrius? There’s an undead army here, and we need a goddamn priest!”

Dustin’s eyes fluttered and Demetrius was back. “Right you are, Mike. But I haven’t been sleeping. I’ve been using the drug to speak with these undead, and try to convince them to let us pass. I’m afraid my communication with them has just enraged them more. In any case, I’m afraid there’s little I can do. Between my spells and turning prayers, I could probably get rid of a score of these zoombies. There are hundreds.”

“Well then what the fuck do we do?” yelled Mike.

“There’s only one thing to do,” said Auriga, looking at Demetrius. The priest nodded.

“I hope you have a mighty spell up your sleeve,” said Lucas.

“I have many offensive spells at my disposal,” said the mage. “Magic missile, color spray, scorching ray, wave of exhaustion – all of which would hardly put a dent in the army surrounding us.”

“So what are you saying?” said Lucas.

“We need the Eye and we need it now,” said Auriga.

“I don’t follow,” said Lucas. “Don’t you need time to study the Eye and figure out how to use it? Not to mention ascertain its dangers?”

“Time is what we don’t have,” said Demetrius. “Auriga is right.”

“Well, then do it already,” said Mike. He couldn’t care less if Auriga fell under some curse. If he could save their asses from this mess, that’s all that mattered.

Auriga nodded. “Will, come here.”

“Me?” asked Will, surprised.

The chief mage nodded.

All eyes were on Auriga as he guided his prodigy to the altar and sat him upon it.

“Around the altar, everyone,” said Demetrius. “Form a circle around me, Auriga, and Will.”

“Whoa!” said Lucas. “What the hell is going on here? What are you doing with Will?”

Mike had his sword out. “He’s not doing anything with Will. Let him go, Auriga!”

Auriga looked at Mike coldly. “Lucas, order your Brother to cease threatening me. I command this mission.”

“So do I,” said Lucas, “and I’m still waiting for an answer. Don’t even dream of telling me that you intend Will to use the Eye.”

“That’s exactly what I intend,” said Auriga.

“Then I intend to order Mike to chop your fucking head off.”

“Demetrius,” said Auriga. “Back me up.”

The priest nodded. “We foresaw this eventuality. Ideally we wanted time to study the Eye, so the Usamigaran community could make a judicious decision. But Lucas, given our situation here, there’s no way we’re leaving this Isle without the power of the Eye. And that means bonding someone to it.”

“Fine!” shouted Lucas. “Auriga can bond himself to it! Where the fuck does he – both of you – get off trying to shove a cursed artifact down a kid’s throat?”

“The eye socket, you mean,” said Auriga.

“What?” said Lucas.

“We’re not shoving the Eye down Will’s throat,” said the chief mage. “We’re going to place it in his eye socket. We have to remove his left eye and put the Eye of Gaius in its place.”

“What?!” screamed Mike.

“One thing is clear in the legends of the Eye,” explained Demetrius. “Younger people stand a much better chance of surviving the transplant and resisting the Eye’s evil. Old people tend to die, go insane, or commit unspeakably evil acts. A child like Will – indeed a prodigy like him – is best suited to wield the Eye. If anyone is.”

“Am I the only one here who is sane?” demanded Mike. “This isn’t happening.”

Will was looking at everyone, confused and scared. Clearly he hadn’t expected this role to be thrust on him. “Auriga, I… I don’t want my eye taken out.”

“Oh don’t worry, Will,” said Mike. “This piece of shit isn’t touching your eye.” He still had his sword drawn, and he looked at Lucas expectantly.

Lucas was shaking his head, trying to digest everything. “You’re saying, Demetrius, that a child can avoid the Eye’s curse?”

“No one can avoid the curse of Gaius,” said Demetrius. “But a child stands the best chance of being able to, how shall I say it, curb the excesses of the Eye.”

“You both intended this all along!” shouted Mike.

“No,” said the priest. “Auriga and I knew this eventuality might arise, which is why we both wanted Will on the mission. No one has ever left the Isle, and now we can see why.”

Fifteen feet away in all directions, the zoombies snarled, pressing their bodies against the invisible wall of protection.

“But you don’t even know what the Eye does,” said Lucas. “What do you expect Will to do here?”

“The legends are consistent on a few points,” said Auriga. “One of those points is that the one who wields the Eye can wreak massive devastation with an ‘eye bite’ – killing any number of creatures just by looking at them.”

Everyone gasped in unbelief. That kind of power was unheard of. And terribly obscene for anyone to use.

Coval shuddered. “I for one do not trust these ‘gifts of Gaius’.”

“You’re not required to,” said Auriga. “Only to do as your told.”

“Let me get this straight,” said Lucas. “You’re going to cut out Will’s eye, give him Gaius’s Eye and he’s going to destroy this army of undead just by looking at them? And he’ll be stuck with the Eye, what, for the rest of his life?”

“That’s kind of the whole point,” said Demetrius.

“No!” cried Will. He looked pleadingly at Auriga. “Please don’t make me do this! You should wear the Eye.”

Auriga put his hand on Will’s shoulder. “This is the role for which you’ve been prepared. I will help you and guide you, don’t worry.”

“Lucas!” said Mike. “This stops right now!”

“Be quiet, Mike!” yelled Lucas, clearly torn between duty and his feelings. “Auriga, I asked you a question. Is wearing the Eye for life?”

“Yes,” said Auriga. “Once someone has bonded with the Eye or Hand, it’s absolutely for life. If you remove it after transplanting it, the patient dies immediately.”

“What about the Hand?” asked Azariah. “Can one of us use it to defeat the zoombies, instead of having Will use the Eye?”

“Not a chance,” said Demetrius. “The Hand isn’t nearly as powerful as the Eye. It’s supposed to make a warrior nearly invincible, that’s true, but even a super-warrior would have a hard time cutting down hundreds of zoombies.”

“There’s another problem with the Hand,” said Auriga. “The legends say that it takes five days for its power to kick in. But the Eye’s power should be accessible right away.”

“We’re not using the Hand in any case,” said Lucas. “The Hand belongs to the Brothers and as a group we need to decide carefully who the wielder is going to be. That’s going to be more Kanadius’s decision than mine.”

“And I assume the wielder must have his hand removed in order to use it?” asked Coval.

Demetrius nodded.

“We need to get started,” said Auriga, his hand still on Will’s shoulder. Will looked at Mike in desperate appeal.

Mike lunged at Auriga. He threw the mage off Will with his free arm. Lucas barked a command. Mike raised his sword over Auriga – and then the sword went flying. Mike found himself being restrained by Coval and Azariah. He let out a deluge of vulgarity and threatened to kill everyone in the circle.

“That’s enough, Mike!” said Lucas.

“Let me go, you fucking shits!” screamed Mike.

Lucas got up close to him. “I’m sorry, Mike. We need the Eye, and now.”

“Then let Auriga rip out his own eye!” yelled Mike, in tears.

“And let me ask you this,” said Lucas softly. “Do you really want Auriga Sirkinos to be the wielder of the Eye of Gaius?”

“I sure don’t,” said Demetrius.

“Your low opinions of me are noted,” said Auriga contemptuously.

“Our low opinions of you are shared by many,” Lucas slammed back at him. “You’re a snake who’d sell his own mother. The only reason I’m agreeing to this is because we literally have no choice. I don’t trust a mage like you wearing the Eye. There’s not an evil bone in Will’s body. I’m hoping that will make a huge difference in offsetting whatever curse this Eye will bring.”

“And I would add, Auriga, ” said Demetrius, “that I believe the only reason a power-monger like you isn’t taking the Eye for yourself is because you could die or go insane from it. It’s self-preservation that’s driving you here. The rest of us are trying to preserve the best possible outcome for everyone – and I’m talking both the short-term and the long. We – and when I say ‘we’, I mean the Usamigarans – agreed as a community that the Eye could enable us to bring down Zargon and his priesthood. We have to be very careful in our selection of the victor who prevails over Zargon. And I trust William Byers.”

“At least we agree on something,” said Auriga smoothly. “I too have every confidence in Will. And despite what you think of me as a person, I will be there for him constantly. Now please allow me to begin.”

Auriga then took a knife from his belt, and started to push Will down on his back. Will rebelled, crying for Mike. Lucas and Demetrius moved to restrain him. They positioned themselves on each side of the table, holding Will down. Auriga stood at the head of the table, looking down on Will’s face. Mike thrashed in the grips of Coval and Azariah. Auriga positioned the knife over Will’s left eye.

Mike’s fury escalated. “Jesus, at least put him to sleep, you assholes! Use a fucking sleep spell!”

“I don’t have a sleep spell,” said Auriga. “Lija did. But in case you didn’t realize it, we need Will wide awake. We have an army waiting to eat us.”

“Anesthesia is out of the question,” agreed Demetrius.

“I’m sorry, Will,” said Auriga. “I’ll make this quick as I can.” He sank the blade firmly and up into the bottom of Will’s eyeball.

Will screamed as blood went everywhere. He thrashed on the table, scissoring his legs. Lucas and Demetrius tightened down. Auriga cut deeper and under, and with the flat of the blade tried to force out the eyeball. Will howled – horribly. His agony filled the island’s air, blending with the shrieks of the undead. Auriga swore as he lost hold of the eyeball, then dug and got it again. Will screamed and begged for help. The chief mage paused, wiping sweat from his forehead. Then he cut deeper – and with a firm hold flicked upwards. With a sickening noise, Will’s eyeball popped out and fell to the ground.

Mike’s body felt numb. He was living a nightmare and wanted to wake up in his bed on Maple Street. To be a kid again in America, where horrors like this were enjoyed safely on movie screens. And where friends went home afterwards, to eat pizza and play games.

“Now for the easy part,” said Auriga. He reached into Will’s bag of holding and produced the Eye, positioning over the bloody socket. To Mike it looked thoroughly evil. What Will saw in it at that moment, Mike never wanted to know for the rest of his life. He looked as if Death itself had come knocking for him:

“Keep it away!” he shrieked. “Keep it away! Keep that thing away from me!”

Lucas and Demetrius could barely hold him down. Lucas shouted at Auriga to hurry up. Auriga obliged, wanting the surgery over and done with. He touched the Eye of Gaius to Will’s empty socket, and waited to see what would happen. Everyone in the circle held their breath.

The transition was instantaneous. The fight left Will completely. The Eye, of its own accord, attached itself and nested inside his socket. Will moaned, sounding like a catatonic, as the new body part settled in.

“Very good, Will,” said Auriga, propping him up on the table. “Are you able to stand?”

Will looked around the circle at everyone. His manner suggested the victim of a stroke. He was dazed, clumsily slow, not speaking, and his right hand twitched.

“What’s wrong with him?” demanded Lucas.

“What the fuck do you think, Lucas?” said Mike, throwing Coval and Azariah’s hands off him. “He has a piece of lich in his head now. He’s practically been lobotomized.”

The Eye of Gaius was undeniably a part of Will now: his left eye. The right was as hazel and normal as ever. The left was red, bloodshot, and unblinking.

“There’s nothing wrong,” said Auriga. “There may be an adjustment period after the surgery.”

“What do you mean?” said Lucas. “I thought you said the Eye’s power would be accessible right away?”

“It should be,” said Auriga. “Will just needs a little… prodding. I’m going to remove him from the field of Demetrius’s necklace protection.”

“Come again?” asked Lucas.

“Stay where you are, Demetrius,” said Auriga. He took Will’s hand and guided him to the circumference of the magical protection barrier. The zoombies snarled, ready to tear him and Will apart.

“Uh, are you sure this is a good idea, Auriga?” asked Demetrius.

“I’m sure,” said the mage, “that this is the only way we’ll precipitate a use of the Eye.” And with that, he threw Will into the horde of undead. The zoombies fell on him immediately.

Everyone exploded in anger and rushed to help Will.

“Wait!” yelled Auriga, holding his hand up.

Mike was seconds away from taking Auriga’s head off, when the shrieks of hunger became roars of pain. Zoombies that were on Will were now on fire, burning as if kerosene had been poured on them. It was a black fire that roasted them to a crisp in seconds. Four zoombies; then three more. The horde backed away from Will, yowling in outrage.

“Well, that did work rather well,” conceded Demetrius.

“Are you sure about that?” asked Mike. “What the hell is happening to Will?”

Will was no longer the dazed victim of a lobotomy. He stood facing the zoombie horde stiff as a pole – his legs close together, arms rigid at his sides, but shaking too. His face contorted and his left Eye burned with incandescent rage. Mike thought of the horror film from his home world, Scanners. Will looked a bit like that guy on the movie poster.

And then Will began to scream. Not like his usual screams, but a ferocious one that didn’t stop. It went on and on – a scream of such violence that had no business coming from a child. Will never paused for breath. One minute, then two. His body shook as if possessed. The zoombies were livid. Everyone in the circle was terrified. Whatever the Eye was doing to him, it was an evil artifact that craved harm.

Three minutes, then four. Will still hadn’t come up for air. His scream rolled on as he stared straight ahead, oblivious to everything. The zoombies shrieked defiance, but wouldn’t come near him.

Five minutes. Will’s scream got even louder, working its way to a crescendo. The zoombies began to skip about and yip, in some kind of pain. And then everyone yelled in shock as one of the zoombie’s heads exploded. Three seconds later, another creature’s body split down the middle, sliced in half. One second. Another’s stomach swelled, and its mouth vomited its innards. Two seconds. A neck twisted clockwise, as the torso went counterclockwise. Will never stopped.

He shook and screamed like that for a long time, and the zoombies died one by one. Each died differently, but it was always hideous. They broke, snapped, twisted, and exploded all the way down the hill of the isle, until the undead were dead. Still, Will didn’t stop. His rage needed more. Mike feared they would all be next. He came up to Will and knelt in front of him, yelling into a face that wouldn’t stop making such maddening noise.

“It’s okay, Will! You did it! They’re all dead!”

Will didn’t register Mike in any way. He raged on, as if intent on bringing down the island itself.

Which is exactly what began to happen.

A thundering crack made everyone jump. Outside the archways, a part of the ground blew upwards like a geyser, showering the air with rubble. Not far from that, an earthquake began, splitting the island across its diameter. In minutes it would divide the island in two.

Lucas raised his voice above Will’s as best he could: “Everyone back to the boat! Now!”

No one needed telling twice. They all began rushing through the archways to go down the hill, except Lucas and Mike. They couldn’t leave Will – though gods knew the kid was probably safer than anyone in the city. Mike kept telling Will to stop. Will either wouldn’t or couldn’t stop. Lucas grabbed Will by one side and Mike the other. They lifted on count of three… but Will wouldn’t budge. His Eye burned with a hunger yet unsatisfied; it wouldn’t allow him to be moved or hushed.

Another explosion erupted. Some of the debris fell close to them.

Lucas yelled in Mike’s ear: “We can’t stay here!” A sharper convulsion shook the ground, and they both ducked. Hunks of rock fell around them. Lucas’s shoulder was hit.

So this is where it ends.

And Mike felt that he had indeed reached the end, of all he could take. He hugged Will’s body and cried for his friend. And as Will shook and screamed in his arms, Mike strove to muster words: You have to stop this, Will. Come back. We need you. I need you.

The concussions became a constant, shaking the isle. Will was unreachable. The stone archways were the next to go: they pitched and crumbled, some into the circle, some outside it. One of them almost hit Mike as he hugged Will, but he was hardly aware of it. Lucas’s shoulder was bleeding. He yelled something at Mike. Mike had no ears for Lucas.

I’m sorry, Will. I failed you. We all did. We should have sent you home. To your mom. And Jonathan.

Something happened then. The island’s tremors slowly faded. Will’s body suddenly began to relax, and his scream dwindled to a soft moan. Unbelieving, Mike looked him over. He shook him gently and said his name. The rage was gone from Will’s face. In its place was a dumb confusion. His bloodshot eye stared at Mike like a parody of catatonia.

“Will?” said Mike. “Hey, are you okay?”

Is he okay?” asked Lucas, holding his shoulder.

“Say something, Will,” said Mike. “Please.”

Will moved his lips as if mentally retarded. His hand twitched as he reached up and touched Mike’s face. He worked his mouth some more, and then croaked like a sick parrot: “Mike?”

Mike cried all over again. Will was back. But the light of his mind had gone out.

 

Next Chapter: Eyebite

(Previous Chapter: Maiden of Madarua)