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:
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.”
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.
Mike laughed. “Did Auriga let him drink booze, or is he a rude wolf?”
“Mike,” said Will.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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 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?”
“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.
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.
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 –
“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)