No-Filler Albums: The Ones I Listen to Start to Finish

I saw a meme recently asking for albums that have no bad or mediocre songs, in other words, the albums you often play from start to finish without skipping any tracks. I’m going to allow myself the leeway of a single bad or mediocre track in order to get a top ten list, otherwise I could probably only list half that amount. Even the best albums usually have a couple tracks that I’ll skip or omit from playlists. But not the following. These I often listen to from start to finish.

1. Achtung Baby, U2, 1992. When U2 reinvented themselves by “burning down the Joshua Tree”, they exceeded their ambitions with a masterpiece completely devoid of mediocrity. Its theme is lethal relationships, played to the tune of distorted vocals and guitars. “Zoo Station” takes the lead with this industrial edge. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” is as addictive today as it was in ’91. “One”, like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, remains widely loved and used at weddings, its bleak message thoroughly misunderstood. “Until the End of the World” is the brilliant conversation between Judas and Jesus; “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” a love-hate song that demands to be loved; “So Cruel” a just-as-good sequel. Then comes “The Fly”, showcasing the Edge’s finest guitar work ever. “Mysterious Ways” captures the bliss of physical love, and “Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is the next-day guilt trip that renews promises of faithfulness. Then “Ultraviolet”, which is the album’s absolute best. “Acrobat” is just sublime, and “Love is Blindness” caps off the album in haunting melodies of mystery. An album like Achtung Baby comes once in a lifetime.

2. Up, Peter Gabriel, 2002. Gabriel’s least accessible album is a raw and wildly imaginative series of meditations on death and grief, and is among the best music I’ve ever heard. “The Barry Williams Show” is a satirical piece that doesn’t belong, but aside from that one misfire, everything is excellent. “Darkness” is the raw opener, a prog piece with abrasive verses meshing with smooth refrains. “Growing Up” is the closest thing to a radio score, but still a bit cerebral for the Billboard charts. The rhythms of “Sky Blue” are as miraculous as those of “Red Rain” from So, and what a coup to use the Blind Boys of Alabama at the end. “No Way Out” is another precious gift and a prequel of sorts to “I Grieve”, the musing on death that Gabriel nails so perfectly. “My Head Sounds Like That” and “More Than This” put us on the road to some measure of recovery. “Signal To Noise” serves as the incredible climax, with haunting melodies, exotic percussion, and guest vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, rolling into an orchestra/percussion combo that builds to a raging crescendo. And finally, “The Drop” leaves us serenely pondering the mystery of death. There are days I call Up my favorite album of all time (if I’m in the mood to pretend Achtung Baby was never made), and aside from poor Barry Williams, I never skip a track.

3. God’s Own Medicine, The Mission UK, 1986. Talk about every track pulling its weight. The opening “Wasteland” broils with conflict between a strict religious upbringing and libertine freedom; in some ways it’s the quintessential Mission UK song. “Bridges Burning” has a hellish chorus screaming in torment; another gem. “Garden of Delight” is a deep sonorous piece set to a chamber orchestra, without guitar and drums, and a strong favorite of mine. “Stay With Me” is a top-40 sounding waltz that somehow doesn’t belong, and yet is nevertheless quite good. “Blood Brother” cries out in a raging homage to The Cult. “Let Sleeping Dogs Die” is infectiously dismal. “Sacrilege” celebrates that without any subtlety, to a racing beat. “Dance on Glass” casts a hideous spell of fever dreams. “And the Dance Goes On” is another great track. “Severina” has the haunting guest vocals of Julianne Regan, and is a beautiful ode to pagan ritual. “Love Me to Death” is a wonderfully oversexed trashy gothic ballad, and “Island in a Stream” cries out in the end for a vain rescue. I’m sure I’ve listened to God’s Own Medicine from start to finish over a thousand times.

4. Screen Violence, Chvrches, 2021. Still a new album as I write this, Screen Violence is the album of the fucking year, unquestionably Chvrches’ best, with not a single track cheating the listener. “Asking for a Friend” is a slow-builder about regret, and develops some of the most haunting textures I’ve heard in a song. “He Said She Said” is the popular screed against misogyny, with thick bass and perfect timings of beat drops in the chorus. “California” explores the dark side of living in that state, and people with crushed dreams; it has an incredibly dreamy chorus. With “Violent Delights”, it’s all the drums. “How Not to Drown” is the treat featuring Robert Smith of The Cure, with a macabre piano and synth. “Final Girl” taps into horror-movie tropes in a crowd-pleaser that evokes New Order. “Good Girls” blasts cancel culture (good for you, Lauren) through slow and persuasive rhythms. “Lullabies” is disarmingly lovely, and “Nightmares” rails about the challenge of forgiveness around futuristic sound effects. “Better If You Don’t” is the only track that sounds mediocre on a first listen, but it has grown on me considerably. This is about as perfect as albums get.

5. Automatic for the People, R.E.M., 1992. I’m not the strongest R.E.M. fan, but Murmur, Document, and Out of Time are solid albums, and Automatic for the People is a stupendous masterpiece. It’s the band’s darkest and most subdued and transcendent effort, and “Drive” announces this unexpected approach at the outset. Every track that follows delves deeper into the darkness: “Try Not to Breathe”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Sweetness Follows”, “Monty Got a Raw Deal”, “Ignoreland”, “Star Me Kitten”, “Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming” (which seems to blend the attempts of “You Are the Everything” and “Hairshirt” from Green, this time getting it right), and “Find the River”. All these songs are terrific and made R.E.M. one of the biggest bands on the planet. It remains a curiosity to me that the world was so receptive to these quiet brooding tracks that deal so heavily with death and departure. It was released while I was living in Africa, and a friend sent the cassette tape to me; I will forever associate Automatic for the People with living on my mountain in Lesotho, listening to every single song on the walkman while pondering depressing things.

6. Red, Taylor Swift, 2012. Don’t laugh. If you ignore her early country efforts, Taylor Swift is a major talent, and Red is a 21st-century masterpiece. “State of Grace” is the opening mind-blower that carries Swift way out of her own reach; I’m amazed that anyone (let alone a hitherto country-singer like Swift) could write this piece of excellence. “Red” is a song that keeps growing on you with shrewd vocal manipulations and understated rhythms. “Treacherous” is melodically sublime in its whispers. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is the classic rock track of the album. “All Too Well” is judged by many to be Swift’s best song of all time, though I say second best after “State of Grace”. “22” is something I want to get up and dance to every time I hear it. “We Are Never Getting Back Together Again” is the top-40 earworm that, surprisingly, never wears out its welcome (unlike her later smashes like “Shake It off” and “Blank Space”). “I Almost Do” is a throw-back to Swift’s country days but not bad at all. “Stay Stay Stay” has no right to sound as good as it does, with its giddy upbeat mandolin and handclaps, but damn, it’s compulsive. “The Last Time” is the only weak spot on the album, a duet that falls rather flat. “Holy Ground” is an awesome ripper that ends way too soon. “Sad Beautiful Tragic” is a heartbreaking waltz. “The Lucky One” laments the curse of fame in solid melodies. “Everything Has Changed” is a duet that gels perfectly (unlike “The Last Time”). “Starlight” fuses her old country sound with the new pop to pleasing effect. And the the closing song “Begin Again” is almost as strong as “All Too Well”. What can I say? I listen to Red quite often, from start to finish with no apologies.

7. And Then There Were Three, Genesis, 1978. Genesis was at their best with Peter Gabriel at the helm, and the band’s unquestionable high points are Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Even so, those albums have tracks that I sometimes skip over. And Then There Were Three is the one Genesis album I play from start to finish every time. There’s not a single note of banality and every track makes me feel like I’m living inside an epic. It kicks off with the powerhouse of “Down and Out”, segues into the beautiful “Undertow”, then to the western-themed “Ballad of Big”, and then to another soft piece (like “Undertow”) “Snowbound”. The longest track is “Burning Rope” and is one of the best. “Deep in the Motherlode” is my favorite track and another western (“Go west young man”), and “Many Too Many” is pure melancholy. “Scenes from a Night’s Dream” picks up the pace with a fun narrative, and “Say It’s Alright Joe” and “The Lady Lies” hark back to the band’s prog years. The final song points forward, with the first Genesis hit to crack the top-40 charts, “Follow You Follow Me”. Jesus, the ’70s were the days that crowd pleasers were tacked on at the end, not front-loaded to hook the lowest common pedestrian. I adore every track on this album in the way a top-40 junkie adores Miley Cyrus.

8. Made of Rain, The Psychedelic Furs, 2020. Remember these guys? This is their long-awaited comeback, after 30 years of silence. “The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll” opens with aggressive atmosphere, and makes us realize how much we’ve missed the band. “Don’t Believe” has droning addictive synths, “You’ll Be Mine” is a strong favorite, and “Wrong Train” asks how we all get life so wrong. “This I’ll Never Be Like Love” is a wonderful slow-piece, the calm before the storm-trilogy of “Ash Wednesday”, “Come All Ye Faithful”, and “No One” — the best tracks on the album aside from “You’ll Be Mine”. Moody dark stuff. “Tiny Hands” is the only weak track, but it’s not really bad and I often listen to it anyway. “Hide the Medicine” resumes the compulsive beats and lyrics, and “Turn Your Back on Me” and “Stars” add up to nice exit points. Now that’s all worth a 30-year wait, when every bloody song pays off.

9. Hold Your Fire, Rush, 1987. To call this the best Rush album would be a grievous heresy (though I do say it’s the band’s fourth best, which many consider heresy enough). But it is the one Rush album I play start to finish without skipping anything. Yes, even “Tai Shan”. They’re all good, Rush fans be damned. It leads with “Force Ten”, a suitable opener with its heavy bass and distinguishing percussions. Then the ephemeral “Time Stands Still” which everyone loves, even if they can’t admit it. Third is the oxymoronic “Open Secrets”, with great guitar action, followed the come-down ballad “Second Nature”. “Prime Mover” is my favorite (it should have been a single), a rocking piece about an unmoved mover setting everything in motion, after which “anything can happen”. “Lock and Key” is a close second favorite, the album’s darkest piece, about the killer instincts in all of us, to a killer tune. “Mission” is simply gorgeous. “Turn the Page” is fast-paced with great guitars. “Tai-Shan” is a slow-moving spiritual song, beckoning us up the sacred Chinese mountain; ignore the haters, it’s a great song. And “High Water” ends on our mystical connection to the ocean. I love each and every one of these tracks, and won’t hold my fire against the naysayers.

10. Battle Born, The Killers, 2012. Hot Fuss is the best Killers’ album hands down, but there are tracks on it that I sometimes skip over. Battle Born I savor from start to finish. It opens with the forceful “Flesh and Bone”, then to the smash hit “Runaways”. The next two hit unexpected emotional highs, “The Way it Was” and “Here With Me”. Then the urgently satisfying “A Matter of Time”. “Deadlines and Commitments” is a favorite of mine, followed by an even stronger favorite, “Miss Atomic Bomb”. “Rising Tide” channels the Hot Fuss era, while “Heart of a Girl” comes down subdued and graceful. “From Here on Out” is a fun quick-hitting piece, and then come the last two gems: the incredibly moving “Be Still”, and the title-rack that goes out guns blazing. Battle Born is a severely underrated album; I love the entire thing.

Is it the End of A Marginal Jew?

Looks like it, unfortunately.

Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1991, the Anchor Bible released the first volume of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, which quickly became an ambitious project. Subsequent volumes were released in 1994 (Jesus’s relation to the Baptist, his meaning of the kingdom, his miracles), 2001 (his “opponents”, like the Sadducees and Pharisees), 2009 (his relation to the Torah), and 2016 (the parables). Two more volumes were slated: the sixth would examine Jesus’ self-designations (messiah, Son of Man, Son of God) and the seventh would cover his death and final days in Jerusalem. It looks like those may not be written. Meier has had health issues since the publication of volume 5, and when I contacted Yale last week about further developments, I was told there are no longer any additional Marginal Jew volumes under contract.

If this is indeed the end of A Marginal Jew — and I wouldn’t want to see anyone finish the series except Meier — then, on the one hand, it’s disappointing. It would have been nice to see Meier’s take on the Jerusalem end game. Then again, maybe it’s just as well. The classic criteria of authenticity (embarrassment, multiple attestation, etc.) have become increasingly obsolete, and A Marginal Jew has been a ’90s project on borrowed time, extending into the 21st century. I have less faith in the criteria than I used to. Still, I like the way Meier applied them. If there was ever any objective application of the criteria, it’s to be found in A Marginal Jew. I wish Meier well and hope he gets better. As a 30-year celebratory look-back, I summarize some of his findings in the five volumes. Meier’s historical Jesus is a plausible one, a prophet who expected a future kingdom to arrive, like his mentor the Baptist, with some modifications; who had a strong reputation of being an exorcist-healer; who was largely Torah-obedient, with a few exceptions; and whose parables have been overvalued and overblown in the imagination of modern scholars.

Miracles: 15 out of 31. Meier pronounces half of the miracle tradition historical. Remember that by “historical”, Meier doesn’t mean that the miracle in question necessarily happened as a supernatural event, nor even that it necessarily happened. There are no ontological judgments and his goals are modest. An historical event is an event that was known during the course of Jesus’ lifetime; reports of the event circulated in the earliest days. Obviously that increases the likelihood that the event happened (in some way), but not necessarily. Meier breaks the miracles into four general categories, and some pass the test better than others:

  • Exorcisms? Yes, with a capital “Y”. Meier judges 5 out of 7 exorcist accounts to be historical. The possessed boy (Mk 9:14-29/Mt 17.14-21/Lk 9.37-43a) and Mary Magdalene (Lk 8:2) are judged to be historical with a strong level of confidence. The demoniac at Capernaum (Mk 1:23-28/Lk 4.33-37), the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20/Mt 8.28-34/8.26-39), and the blind & mute demoniac (Mt 12:22-23a/Lk 11:14) are judged to be likely historical. The mute demoniac (Mt 9:32-33) and the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28) are judged to be unhistorical. Jesus was so renowned as an exorcist that he was accused of being in league with demonic powers, for “casting out demons with the aid of demons” (Mk 3.22-27).
  • Healings? Yes, though perhaps not to the degree the gospels imply. 6 out of 15 healings are deemed historical: the paralyzed man let down through the rooftop (Mk 2:1-12/Mt 9.1-8/Lk 5.17-26), the sick man by the pool of Bethseda (Jn 5:1-9), the blind beggar (Mk 10:46-52/Lk 18:35-43), the blind man of Bethsaida (Mk 8:22-26), the deaf mute (Mk 7:31-37/Mt 15.29-31), and (with some reservations) the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13/Lk 7.1-10/Jn 4.46b-54) are judged to be likely historical. The other 9 healing accounts in the gospels are judged either non-liquet (indeterminate) or unhistorical.
  • Raising the dead? A strong yes. 3 out of 3. The daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:21-43/Mt 9:18-26/Lk 8:40-56), the son of the widow at Nain (Lk 7:11-17), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45). (Again, whether Jesus actually brought these people back from the dead isn’t an issue for A Marginal Jew. The conclusion is that accounts that he did so circulated during his lifetime.)
  • Nature miracles? No. Of the 6, Meier does make a case for one of them — the feeding of the multitude with bread and fish (Mk 6:32-44/Mt 14.13-21/Lk 9. 10b-17 /Jn 6.1-15). But by his own concessions, the glaring influence of the Elisha miracle and the Last Supper/eucharist traditions effectively make the judgment non-liquet (indeterminate). The other 5 nature miracles are shown to be blatantly unhistorical. The cursing of the fig tree (Mk 11:12-14,20-21/Mt 21:18-20) is the only vindictive miracle attributed to Jesus and works purely in the Markan context of the temple’s destruction. The fish catch (Lk 5:1-11/Jn 21:1-14) is a post-resurrection story that has been turned into an apostolic commission (to leave all things, including “the catch”, to follow Jesus). The walking on water (Mk 6:45-52/Mt 14:22-33/Jn 6:16-21) is not a “sea rescue” that would cohere with Jesus’ means of using power to help those in need; it squares with the agenda of the early church toward a high christology that makes Jesus the functional equivalent of God; it has an epiphanic thrust saturated with Old Testament allusions. The same is true for the calming of the storm (Mk 4:35-41/Mt 8:23-27/Lk 8:22-25); it’s not a sea-rescue, since the disciples aren’t in mortal danger; it’s another epiphany-like wonder meant to evoke astonishment; its Christological message transcends and reverses the events in Jonah (where sailors avert God’s wrath by throwing Jonah overboard into the storm). And finally, the water-to-wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) is transparently unhistorical, since if we subtract from the story everything that John would have likely invented plus everything that raises historical problems, the entire story vanishes.

Law Disputes: 2 ½ out of 6. Meier finds most of the Torah disputes in the gospels to be unhistorical and a reflection of later church controversies, as Gentiles became part of the Christian movement. Jesus was a devout Israelite, respected the Torah, kept it, and reinforced it. But he also occasionally rescinded it (in the cases of divorce and oath-taking), in view of God’s in-breaking power. (Christological ideas about Jesus fulfilling the law, as in Mt 5:17, are easily dismissed as a church creation.)

  • Condemned Divorce? Yes. Though Jesus’ prohibition against divorce (Mk 10:2-12/Mt 19:3-9; Mt 5:32/Lk 16:18; I Cor 7:10-11) didn’t technically violate a Torah commandment (he was forbidding what Moses allowed rather than what Moses commanded), it obviously called the Torah into question, and because the prohibition was so socially outrageous (all Mediterranean societies considered divorce to be the natural and necessary way of things), it would have been perceived by many as an attack on the law, nuances notwithstanding. Jesus dared to say that a man who duly follows the Torah in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery — a serious sin against the Decalogue. That would have been considered an effective attack on the law. Meier grounds Jesus’ motive in eschatology, but Jesus may also have been trying to protect the economic well-being of families, especially women’s families.
  • Prohibited Oaths? Yes. Jewish teaching never prohibited oaths entirely. Ben Sira warns against frequent swearing, and Philo says to avoid it whenever possible, but even they don’t dare forbid what the Torah commands in two cases: for a person who loses goods entrusted (Exod 22:9-10) and for a wife suspected of adultery (Num 5:11-31). If Jesus prohibited oaths as reported in Mt 5:34-37, and as implied in Jas 5:12 — which Meier finds historical — then he went further than anyone else on record, and abrogated the Torah.
  • Sabbath Disputes? Not really, no. According to Meier, none of the sabbath-healing accounts which call forth dispute are historically reliable. At best, we get a window onto the historical Jesus in the traditions of Mt 12:11/Lk 14:5, and Mk 2:27. When it came to endangered animals, the historical Jesus sided with peasants against the Essenes and (possibly) the Pharisees. When it came to endangered people, he sided with peasants against a murky position of the Essenes (or other sectarian influence). The motive, again, was eschatology: the roots of the sabbath lie in creation, but a creation, in his view, was soon to be restored, and that meant the sabbath had to serve the good of humanity, rather than vice-versa. But most of the sabbath controversies seem to reflect later church conflicts.
  • Purity/Kosher Conflicts? No. The famous passage of Mk 7:1-23/Mt 15:1-20 tells us virtually nothing about the historical Jesus, says Meier, with the possible exception of the qorban saying of Mk 7:10-12. On whole it’s a much later creation. There is no evidence for any Jewish group in the pre-70 period urging laypeople to wash their hands before eating meals, and as for keeping kosher itself, that governed everyone’s daily living. To abolish it would have obliterated the basic distinction between clean and unclean, not to mention an essential part of Jewish identity. Add to this the fact that no gospel ever reports Jesus or the disciples eating forbidden food, and a case for the authenticity of Mk 7 in general, and Mk 7:15 in particular, becomes an uphill battle. If Jesus had revoked the Torah’s food laws, he would have been reviled and distrusted by virtually every Jew in Palestine. And of course Paul is unable to cite Jesus in a case like Rom 14:14 (“we know that no food is unclean in itself”), unlike the case of divorce, for which he can cite Jesus.
  • Commandments about Love? Yes and no. Yes, to the command to love God and one’s neighbor (Mk 12:28-34/Mt 22:34-40/Lk 10:25-28), and to the command to love enemies (Mt 5:44b/Lk 6:27b). No, to the command to love one another (Jn 13:34, 15:12,17). John’s commandment to love one another implicitly opposes Mark/Matthew/Luke’s commandments to love one’s neighbors and enemies. For John there is no greater love than self-sacrifice for one’s friends, and indeed, for him and his community, love of neighbors and enemies isn’t even on the radar screen. (Note: Meier isn’t saying that Jesus would have objected to the idea of loving “one another”, family and friends, only that Jesus didn’t explicitly teach this or stress the idea. The commandment is only in John, which as a sectarian gospel has a fierce agenda to not love one’s enemies. The commandment, in other words, was born in a community that was hostile to outsiders.)
  • The Golden Rule? No. The Golden Rule (Mt 7:12/Lk 6:31) fails the criteria miserably. It was common wisdom found in the Greco-Roman world, usually expressed in the more negative form, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.” Essentially, a person decided how he or she wanted to be treated and then made that the standard for treating others. Not only does it fail every single criterion of authenticity, it’s inconsistent with Jesus’ demands stated elsewhere, and thus unable to meet even the bare-bones standard of coherence. Jesus had no use for a Golden-Rule like ethic of reciprocity. He says, rather, that “if you love those who love you, what credit do you gain?”, and that “if you give loans to those from whom you hope to receive payment, what credit do you gain?”, etc. “The clash between the Golden Rule and Jesus’ withering blast against a morality of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ is as astounding as it is little noted by Christians”. Yes, Jesus could have been inconsistent, but there are understandable inconsistencies and not-so-understandable ones, and this is the latter. The Golden Rule is best understood as entering the tradition at a later date as the Christian movement grew and became mainstreamed. It becomes a near apologetic strategy to argue that Jesus actually taught it.

The Parables: 4 out of 32. “The last thing I expected,” says Meier, “when I began writing A Marginal Jew was that I would one day decide that most of the parables cannot be shown with fair probability to go back to the historical Jesus. The historical-critical method is an equal-opportunity offender. I may not now suddenly retreat from or discard this method simply because I don’t like the outcome in the case of the parables.” (Volume 5, pp 20, 230-31) Here is that dismal outcome, the four stories which Meier can justify tracing back to Jesus.

  • The Mustard Seed. The meaning of Mk 4:30-32/Mt 13:31-32/Lk 13:18-19/Thom 20, from Jesus’ lips, was that God’s rule was already at work in his preaching and healing activities, and that however small his mission seemed at the moment, there was an organic connection between it and the visible coming of God who would set things right on the last day.
  • The Wicked Tenants. Jesus’ version of Mk 12:1-11/Mt 21:33-44/Lk 20:9-18/Thom 65 was the dark story of Mk 12:1-8 that offered no hope of consolation: the son is murdered, his corpse dishonored, and the murderous farmers remain in possession of the vineyard. This later called forth the two different correctives — first the punishment of the farmers in Mk 12:9, then vindication of the son by making him the “cornerstone” or keystone of the new state of affairs in Mk 12:10-11 (which obviously refers to the resurrection). “It’s nigh impossible that the primitive form of the parable in Mk 12:1-8 was composed by some believer in Christ in the early post-Easter period of the church”. But from Jesus it makes sense. He was saying that he knew full well what awaited him if he pursued his confrontation with Jerusalem authorities, and that as an Elijah-like prophet of the end times, he accepted his destiny of martyrdom. His parable ended with his anticipated death at the hands the temple authorities (the vineyard tenants), and that was the end, period, with no reversal of the injustice.
  • The Great Supper. The common core of Mt 22:2-10/Lk 14:16-24/Thom 64. Meier shows that the Lukan version has almost as much redaction as the Matthean (all the more impressive given that he is a Q-advocate), and when all redactions are removed, Jesus’ story tells of a bunch of people who refuse to attend a banquet to which they were specially invited; their insulted host reacts in a most pissed-off fashion, by sending out surprise invitations to virtually anyone, no matter how undeserving, who can be found in the streets. Jesus, according to Meier, was warning observant Jews that their place in the kingdom can be taken by those who socially or religiously marginalized, including even Gentiles.
  • The Talents. Like the Great Supper, the story of Mt 25:14-30/Lk 19:12-27 is an unusual example of a parable preserved not by Q (assuming it existed) but in the separate streams of M and L. Jesus told it as an exhortation-plus call to the disciples. Along with sovereign grace, serious demand, and superabundant reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hellfire for refusing the demand contained in the gift.

See my reviews of volume 4 and volume 5 for more detail.

Anti-abortion in Texas, the Bible, and the Middle Assyrian Laws

The new Texas abortion law took effect last week, prohibiting abortions after the presence of a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy (exceptions for medical emergencies only). About 85 to 90 percent of women who get an abortion in Texas are at least six weeks into their pregnancy, so this law will have serious impact. It violates Roe v. Wade, which prohibits states from banning abortion before a fetus is viable, typically around six months (not weeks) of pregnancy. The law also has a draconian provision that allows private citizens to sue those who perform or aid the abortion in violation of the law, providing for at least $10,000 for each successful suit. That the Supreme Court has declined to get involved isn’t encouraging, and when you add to this the Mississippi abortion case to be heard by the Court, I seriously wonder if Roe v. Wade will be overturned next year.

American anti-abortionists tend to be Christian, and it’s worth revisiting what the bible says on the subject. Chris Heard, an anti-abortionist himself, summed it up many years ago:

“Let me be completely clear and honest: I despise abortion. I think that a biblically-informed valuation of human life leads one in that direction. But I also object to bad exegesis. There is no biblical proof-text against abortion. Deuteronomy 30:19 (“choose life”) has nothing to do with abortion; it has to do with being party to God’s covenant with Israel. Psalm 139:13-18 is less relevant to the issue than most people think; a careful reading of that psalm reveals that the “mother” in whose “womb” the psalmist was known by God is Mother Earth (notice the parallelism between “my mother’s womb” and “the depths of the earth” in the inclusio of vv. 13-15). Exodus 21:22-25 is very difficult, but it certainly does not speak directly to abortion; at most, it relates to an accidentally induced miscarriage, though it may refer to a premature birth. That interpretive decision is crucial, and I’m not sure how to resolve it. As far as I can tell, the only biblical passage that I know of that directly mentions a practice like we would think of as abortion curses a man who did not practice it on the fetal Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18).”

Indeed, in the Jeremiah passage the prophet curses the day he was born and laments the fact that he was not aborted, which is hardly of help to the anti-abortionist cause.

The Exodus passage, however, may be resolvable, in a way that both helps and undermines the anti-abortionist cause. It’s an assault-and-miscarriage law, which on the face of it does seem to support the idea that late-term abortions are murder, while implying that early-term abortions are mere property crimes against the father. In the former case, the proper redress is execution or mutilation (eye for an eye, etc.). In the latter case, the proper redress is financial compensation. The key lies in what the text means by “harm following” the premature birth, and by “harm not following” the premature birth. Richard Carrier writes:

“If a fully-formed fetus comes out, meaning a viable baby who dies from the premature birth, that’s ‘harm follows,’ and anything else is equivalent to a mere miscarriage, in which case ‘harm does not follow.’ No viable baby was lost. This makes clear that only what we would call a late term abortion is murder; and indeed, the Bible doesn’t really even say that as such, since this is an involuntary abortion (an assault), but it’s reasonable to assume Jewish courts would deem a woman who sought an abortion as then the one committing the crime—either a property crime against her husband if she aborts before the third trimester, or murder if afterward. So this passage does support declaring late-term abortions murder; but it actually is declaring all other abortions permissible — all you need do is compensate the father for the resulting financial loss and (maybe) pay a tax. Essentially, as worded, women could legally pay their husbands and the state to let them have an abortion. That’s God’s law.”

That’s a reasonable inference, though hard to be too confident about, since the bible never generally speaks about abortion. Brian Rainey in fact notes the revealing contrast between the vague biblical view and the clear-cut Assyrian one:

“There is an abortion ban in the Middle Assyrian Laws, Tablet A (MAL A), a law code from ~1076 BCE that predates the Bible. It’s the earliest known abortion ban in the world, I believe. Like the Bible, MAL A contains laws about what should happen when a physical assault results in accidental miscarriage (§21, 50-52). These laws are similar to Exodus 21:22-25. MAL A’s harsh anti-abortion law immediately follows its accidental miscarriage laws:

If a woman aborts her fetus by her own action…they shall impale her, they shall not bury her. If she dies as a result of aborting her own fetus, they shall impale her, they shall not bury her. If any persons should hide that woman because she aborted her fetus…[And the text breaks off]” (§53, Roth’s translation).

It seems that MAL A, like Texas’s recently passed anti-abortion law, encourages snitching on people who have abortions, though sadly the text is broken so we don’t get details.

The Bible has an assault-and-accidental-miscarriage law in Exodus 21:22-25. But unlike MAL A, an anti-abortion law does not follow it. Clearly, such a law would have been conceivable. The Bible could’ve done what MAL A did and included an explicit anti-abortion law, but didn’t.”

Which is revealing. Relative to their neighbors, the ancient Israelites weren’t so aggressively anti-abortionist.

I’m strongly pro-choice and don’t look to the bible for guidance on the subject. But I recognize that many Christians do seek biblical justification for their point of view — both pro-choice and anti-abortion believers — and I’m sympathetic to those on either side who operate out of a code of empathy. With Chris Heard, I believe that any biblical case for anti-abortion would have to be a “cumulative theological case”, rather than a direct case based on proof texts, since the specific texts of the bible are virtually useless except perhaps for Exodus 21 (which both supports and undermines an anti-abortionist argument). More revealing is the reputation of early Jews and Christians, who were known in antiquity for despising infanticide. Constantine may have even adopted Christianity, at least in part, to halt the population decline in the Roman empire. As early as the end of the first century, people like Tacitus and Pliny the Younger complained about the problem of childlessness and the common view of children as a burden; baby girls were especially unwanted and discarded. The only groups in the empire that were increasing by normal demographic process were the Christians and the Jews (in no small part because they extended the sanctity of life to children, infants, and probably the unborn), and Constantine may have been trying to capitalize on this.

Anti-abortion, in other words, is not biblical in the way that homophobia, post-tribulation eschatology, and New Testament pacifism are. It’s more biblical in the way that anti-racism is. A convincing case can be made for it by building on many cumulative biblical ideas. A pro-choice position, on the other hand, has a more uphill battle, but certainly not an impossible one. It could rely on the general silence of abortion in the bible, argue that Exodus 21 implies that only late-term abortions amount to murder, and perhaps extend arguments based on the Torah’s wider concern for widows and orphans, the poor, etc. — women and children, in other words, who end up suffering the most when abortion is not a legal right.

With regards to the particular lawsuit provision of the Texas law, I find it appalling that anyone in Texas can sue anyone else who performs or aids an abortion after 6 weeks. It also puts the conservative justices (except for Clarence Thomas) in an awkward position, since they recently ruled that a lawsuit doesn’t have standing unless direct concrete harm to the plaintiff can be proven. Thomas rightly dissented with the liberals, blasting his fellow conservatives for overturning a precedent that goes back to America’s founding: federal courts had never required plaintiffs to demonstrate direct concrete injury. But now that this is the judicial precedent, the conservative justices (aside from Thomas) should be condemning the Texas law on their own logic. In any case, I can’t see a biblical base for this draconian lawsuit provision, let alone a constitutional one.

Reading Radar Update

Loren’s Recommendations

It’s my month to be featured on the Nashua Public Library’s Reading Radar (our staff pick display). I have some new recommendations, and I reproduce all my picks here on this blog, since I’ve reviewed many of them in the past, and supply the links at the end of the blurbs. Fiction and non-fiction alike are included in the following recommendations. (Click on the right image for my feature page on the library website.)

1. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks, 2013. A crusader enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and goes on a slaughter-mission, tearing up the city to find his lost wife. His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of abused children he rescues along the way. Full review here.

2. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon, 6 volume series, 1955-1960. George Martin calls this series the “original Game of Thrones”, and I can see why. It’s historical fiction (not fantasy) set in France (1314-1336), showing the downfall of the Capetian dynasty amidst self-serving ambitions. Endless family quarrels, clashes between church and throne, civil war, adultery, backbiting, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing, you name it.

3. Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. A book I wish everyone would read. The authors explore the tension between classical liberalism and woke postmodernism, and the differences between their approaches to social justice. They conclude that classical liberalism stands the test of time against the emptiness of woke theories. Full review here.

4. Veritas, by Ariel Sabar, 2020. A real-life conspiracy thriller, the true story of a pornographer who conned Harvard University into believing that a “gospel of Jesus’s wife” was genuine. This brilliant piece of investigative journalism was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Full review here.

5. The History of Jihad, by Robert Spencer, 2018. Featured front and center: the first book of its kind, that covers all theaters of the Islamic holy wars, starting with Muhammad and then proceeding through every century, showing how jihad has always been an essential ingredient of Islam. It even covers the jihads in India (usually hard information to come by). While there are many peaceful and moderate Muslims, there has never been a form of moderate Islam; it’s not a religion of peace, which is why disproportionate numbers of Muslims have been jihadists in every day and age. Full review here.

6. Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland, 2014. If you want a book that ranks the U.S. presidents who were good for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty (like Tyler and Harding), then read this book. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized (like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan), or who were charismatics, then get any of the mainstream rankings that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Full review here.

7. Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky & Howard Gillman, 2017. “We should prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” Sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — and these students are the future of our legislators and supreme court justices. If every college student read this book, it might go a long way to making strong thinkers again. Full review here.

8. Koko, by Peter Straub, 1988. A novel about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. An absolutely brilliant story, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. Full review (retrospective) here.

9. Boundaries of Eden, by Glenn Arbery, 2020. Last but not least, and in fact I’ll call it my #1 pick. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and examines the tormented mind of a serial killer. It’s that rare novel that does a bit of everything, very literary, and I didn’t want it to end.

 

The Three “Political Compass” Tests

I’ve done these compass tests before, but here’s how I test on each of the three versions: the Political Compass, the Political Coordinates, and the Sapply Values version. I test similarly on all of them: moderate libertarian slightly to the right of center. Note however that the Sapply Test has the usual left-right and libertarian-authoritarian scales, but also an additional scale for conservatism-progressivism, which is helpful because it separates social views (on the right bar) from governmental power views (the vertical axis).

So according to Sapply, I’m a “liberal” on two scales — libertarian as regards governmental power (vertical axis), and progressive as regards human rights and social views (the right-hand bar). I lean “conservative” on the horizontal scale — right as regards fiscal/economic issues (horizontal axis). And yes, that seems about correct for me.

I paste below my answers to each of the three tests.

 

The Political Compass (I’m purple)

Page 1: How you see the country and the world

1. If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations. Strongly disagree — and this is an absurdly phrased question. Transnational corporations have been strongly helpful to humanity, and in many cases more helpful than top-down government schemes.

2. I’d always support my country, whether it was right or wrong. Strongly disagree.

3. No one chooses their country of birth, so it’s foolish to be proud of it. Agree.

4. Our race has many superior qualities, compared with other races. Strongly disagree. Science shows that race is an illusion.

5. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Disagree.

6. Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified. Agree — not often, but sometimes. International law is dictated by countries with conflicting priorities. It may well be in the interest of a nation to engage in a defensive war, regardless of what other nations say about it.

7. There is now a worrying fusion of information and entertainment. Disagree.

Page 2: Economy

1. People are ultimately divided more by class than by nationality. Strongly disagree. World War I and other examples prove this is to be nonsense.

2. Controlling inflation is more important than controlling unemployment. Strongly agree. Controlling the root causes of unemployment, like inflation, is what makes an economy healthy. Creating jobs is a band-aid solution that doesn’t address the illness.

3. Because corporations cannot be trusted to voluntarily protect the environment, they require regulation. Strongly agree. Businesses need some regulation, such as when it comes to the environment.

4. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is a fundamentally good idea. Strongly disagree.

5. The freer the market, the freer the people. Strongly agree.

6. It’s a sad reflection on our society that something as basic as drinking water is now a bottled, branded consumer product. Agree.

7. Land shouldn’t be a commodity to be bought and sold. Strongly disagree.

8. It is regrettable that many personal fortunes are made by people who simply manipulate money and contribute nothing to their society. Disagree, and this is a crazy question, for assuming that investors and such are contributing nothing to society.

9. Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade. Disagree. Tariffs are always a bad idea.

10. The only social responsibility of a company should be to deliver a profit to its shareholders. Agree.

11. The rich are too highly taxed. Disagree.

12. Those with the ability to pay should have access to higher standards of medical care. Disagree.

12. Governments should penalize businesses that mislead the public. Agree.

13. A genuine free market requires restrictions on the ability of predator multinationals to create monopolies. Disagree. Monopolies are almost impossible to establish (unless the government sponsors them).

Page 3: Social Values

1. Abortion, when the woman’s life is not threatened, should always be illegal. Strongly disagree.

2. All authority should be questioned. Agree.

3. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Strongly disagree.

4. Taxpayers should not be expected to prop up any theatres or museums that cannot survive on a commercial basis. Strongly disagree.

5. Schools should not make classroom attendance compulsory. Agree. I’m not wild about homeschooling, but it should be an option.

6. All people have their rights, but it is better for all of us that different sorts of people should keep to their own kind. Strongly disagree.

7. Good parents sometimes have to spank their children. Disagree.

8. It’s natural for children to keep some secrets from their parents. Strongly agree.

9. Possessing marijuana for personal use should not be a criminal offence. Strongly agree.

10. The prime function of schooling should be to equip the future generation to find jobs. Agree.

11. People with serious inheritable disabilities should not be allowed to reproduce. Strongly disagree.

12. The most important thing for children to learn is to accept discipline. Disagree.

13. There are no savage and civilised peoples (cultures); there are only different cultures. Strongly disagree, and a poorly phrased question to make one feel bad about answering honestly. The statement should read, “There are no savage and civilized cultures [not peoples]; there are only different cultures.” Which is disagreeable in the extreme. There are certainly cultures which are more savage than others, and to say they’re just “different” perverts the message of multicuturalism.

14. Those who are able to work, and refuse the opportunity, should not expect society’s support. Strongly agree.

15. When you are troubled, it’s better not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things. Agree.

16. First-generation immigrants can never be fully integrated within their new country. Disagree. With few exceptions (like Muslims in certain areas), integration is a realistic goal.

17. What’s good for the most successful corporations is always, ultimately, good for all of us. Disagree.

18. No broadcasting institution, however independent its content, should receive public funding. Disagree.

Page 4: How you see wider society

1. Our civil liberties are being excessively curbed in the name of counter-terrorism. Agree.

2. A significant advantage of a one-party state is that it avoids all the arguments that delay progress in a democratic political system. Strongly disagree.

3. Although the electronic age makes official surveillance easier, only wrongdoers need to be worried. Strongly disagree.

4. The death penalty should be an option for the most serious crimes. Agree.

5. In a civilised society, one must always have people above to be obeyed and people below to be commanded. Strongly disagree.

6. Abstract art that doesn’t represent anything shouldn’t be considered art at all. Strongly disagree.

7. In criminal justice, punishment should be more important than rehabilitation. Sort of agree. It’s true that rehabilitation is generally a farce, but criminal justice should be less about punishment and more about safety. Keeping society safe from criminals is what is most important of all in criminal justice.

8. It is a waste of time to try to rehabilitate some criminals. Strongly agree.

9. The businessperson and the manufacturer are more important than the writer and the artist. Strongly disagree.

10. Mothers may have careers, but their first duty is to be homemakers. Strongly disagree.

11. Multinational companies are unethically exploiting the plant genetic resources of developing countries. Disagree.

12. Making peace with the establishment is an important aspect of maturity. Disagree.

Page 5: Religion

1. Astrology accurately explains many things. Strongly disagree.

2. You cannot be moral without being religious. Strongly disagree.

3. Charity is better than social security as a means of helping the genuinely disadvantaged. Sort of agree, though I support both.

4. Some people are naturally unlucky. Agree.

5. It is important that my child’s school instills religious values. Strongly disagree.

Page 6: Sex

1. Sex outside marriage is usually immoral. Strongly disagree.

2. A same sex couple in a stable, loving relationship should not be excluded from the possibility of child adoption. Strongly agree.

3. Pornography, depicting consenting adults, should be legal for the adult population. Strongly agree.

4. What goes on in a private bedroom between consenting adults is no business of the state. Strongly agree.

5. No one can feel naturally homosexual. Strongly disagree.

6. These days openness about sex has gone too far. Disagree.

 

The Political Coordinates Test (I’m yellow)

1. Taxpayer money should not be spent on arts or sports. Strongly disagree.

2. Some countries and civilizations are natural enemies. Agree.

3. Overall, the minimum wage does more harm than good. Agree.

4. Import tariffs on foreign products are a good way to protect jobs in my country. Strongly disagree.

5. Western civilization has benefited more from Christianity than from the ideas of Ancient Greece. Disagree.

6. Immigration to my country should be minimized and strictly controlled. Strongly disagree.

7. Prostitution should be legal. Strongly agree.

8. A strong military is a better foreign policy tool than a strong diplomacy. Strongly disagree.

9. Free trade is better for third-world countries than developmental aid. Strongly agree.

10. There is at heart a conflict between the interest of business and the interest of society. Neutral. (Equally true or false, depending on circumstances.)

11. Homosexual couples should have all the same rights as heterosexual ones, including the right to adopt. Strongly agree.

12. It is legitimate for nations to privilege their own religion over others. Disagree.

13. Marijuana should be legal. Strongly agree.

14. A country should never go to war without the support of the international community. Disagree.

15. People who turn down a job should not be eligible for unemployment benefits from the government. Agree.

16. The government should set a cap on the wages of bankers and CEOs. Disagree.

17. Medically assisted suicide should be legal. Strongly agree.

18. Speculation on the stock exchange is less desirable than other kinds of economic activity. Neutral.

19. Surveillance and counter-terrorism programs have gone too far. Agree.

20. It almost never ends well when the government gets involved in business. Agree.

21. Capital punishment should be an option in some cases. Agree.

22. There are too many wasteful government programs. Neutral. (Many good ones, many bad ones.)

23. Rehabilitating criminals is more important than punishing them. Disagree.

24. Monarchy and aristocratic titles should be abolished. Strongly agree.

25. The government should provide healthcare to its citizens free of charge. Agree. (Though it’s a complex issue. I believe it should provide free health insurance for catastrophic health coverage and then have people pay for other healthcare.)

26. Overall, security leaks like those perpetrated by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks do more harm than good. Strongly disagree.

27. Overall, labor unions do more harm than good. Disagree.

28. The market is generally better at allocating resources than the government. Neutral. (Depending on the issue, both the market and the government have their place and strengths in allocating resources.)

29. The government should redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Disagree.

30. If people want to drive without a seat belt, that should be their decision. Agree.

31. Government spending with the aim of creating jobs is generally a good idea. Disagree. (Fighting inflation and other root-cause solutions are better.)

32. If an immigrant wants to fly the flag of his home country on my country’s soil, that’s okay with me. Agree. (By “okay with me”, I mean that I’m okay with it legally. It’s what the First Amendment guarantees.)

33. Equality is more important than economic growth. Strongly agree.

34. Some peoples and religions are generally more trouble than others. Neutral. (Disagree about peoples, but strongly agree about religions; some religions oppose the values of a free and humane society more than others.)

35. My country should give more foreign and developmental aid to third-world countries. Disagree.

36. We need to increase taxes on industry out of concern for the climate. Agree.

 

The Sapply Test (I’m yellow in the graph, and green on the sidebar)

1. Freedom of business is the best practical way a society can prosper. Agree.

2. Charity is a better way of helping those in need than social welfare. Neutral. (They’re both helpful and have their place.)

3. Wages are always fair, as employers know best what a worker’s labour is worth. Disagree.

4. It is “human nature” to be greedy. Strongly agree.

5. “Exploitation” is an outdated term, as the struggles of 1800s capitalism doesn’t exist anymore. Disagree.

6. Communism is an ideal that can never work in practice. Strongly agree.

7. Taxation of the wealthy is a bad idea, society would be better off without it. Disagree.

8. The harder you work, the more you progress up the social ladder. Disagree.

9. Organisations and corporations cannot be trusted and need regulating by the government. Agree. To an extent anyway. I favor government regulation of business to protect the environment, human health, and worker safety, but NOT for trying to mandate economic equality (other than perhaps taxing the rich more), as that runs contrary to the whole point of the capitalist system.

10. A government that provides for everyone is an inherently good idea. Disagree.

11. The current welfare system should be expanded to further combat inequality. Strongly disagree.

12. Land should not be a commodity to be bought and sold. Strongly disagree.

13. All industry and the bank should be nationalised. Strongly disagree.

14. Class is the primary division of society. Strongly disagree.

15. Economic inequality is too high in the world. Strongly agree.

16. Sometimes it is right that the government may spy on its citizens to combat extremists and terrorists. Strongly disagree.

17. Authority figures, if morally correct, are a good thing for society. Strongly disagree.

18. Strength is necessary for any government to succeed. Neutral.

19. Only the government can fairly and effectively regulate organisations. Agree.

20. Society requires structure and bureaucracy in order to function. Agree.

21. Mandatory IDs should be used to ensure public safety. Strongly disagree.

22. In times of crisis, safety becomes more important than civil liberties. Disagree. I don’t strongly disagree, because there are cases where safety trumps liberty (like mask-wearing during Covid). But too often throughout history, “situations of crisis”, especially during wartime, have been used as a poor excuse to infringe on free speech and other liberties.

23. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Strongly disagree.

24. The government should be less involved in the day to day life of its citizens. Agree.

25. Without democracy, a society is nothing. Strongly agree.

26. Jury nullification should be legal. Agree.

27. The smaller the government, the freer the people. Agree.

28. The government should, at most, provide emergency services and law enforcement. Disagree.

29. The police was not made to protect the people, but to uphold the status-quo by force. Strongly disagree.

30. State schools are a bad idea because our state shouldn’t be influencing our children. Disagree.

31. Two consenting individuals should be able to do whatever they want with each other, even if it makes me uncomfortable. Strongly agree.

32. An individual’s body is their own property, and they should be able to do anything they desire to it. Strongly agree.

33. A person should be able to worship whomever or whatever they want. Agree.

34. Nudism is perfectly natural. Agree.

35. Animals deserve certain universal rights. Agree.

36. Gender is a social construct, not a natural state of affairs. Disagree.

37. Laws based on cultural values, rather than ethical ones, aren’t justice. Strongly agree.

38. Autonomy of body extends even to minors, the mentally ill, and serious criminals. Agree.

39. Homosexuality is against my values. Strongly disagree.

40. Transgender individuals should not be able to adopt children. Strongly disagree.

41. Drugs are harmful and should be banned. Strongly disagree.

42. The death penalty should exist for certain crimes. Agree.

43. Victimless crimes should still be punished. Disagree. The goal of a civilized society should be to do away with punitive punishments for victimless crimes.

44. One cannot be moral without religion. Strongly disagree.

45. Parents should hold absolute power over their children, as they are older and more experienced. Disagree.

46. Multiculturalism is bad. Disagree, though this depends on one’s understanding of multiculturalism. “Multiculturalism” according to the woke left is most certainly bad, but generally speaking, a pluralistic society with a plurality of ideas is to be celebrated.

Screen Violence: Chvrches’ Most Retributive Album, and Surprisingly Their Best

This is a record that decidedly speaks to the bullied and beaten down, but without the condescending sense of pandering that usually attends pop-star exhortations to embrace your special-ness, or whatever. Mayberry sounds like she’s been through the ringer, but is still ready to hand you a baseball bat and take on the assholes. (AV Club)

Lauren Mayberry has put up with a lot in her musical career – misogyny, rape and death threats, toxic expectations, you name it. But, as her duet with Robert Smith of The Cure suggests, she doesn’t let the shitheads grind her down. Screen Violence is a comeback album, after what many consider to be Chvrches’ weakest (Love is Dead), and I concur with those who call it the band’s best album to date. Though I have a hard time beating up on Love is Dead — it does, after all, contain the best Chvrches song and still does — there’s no denying a lot of its tracks pander to mainstream pop. Why the band brought in outside producers to help on that album I don’t know. They’ve always had the mojo to stick to themselves, and in Screen Violence they not only reattain that independent confidence, they go one better than what they’ve ever done before. There’s not a single song on this album that I skip over when listening to it, and I can’t say that about any of the other three.

If you have nostalgia for the old horror films of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, this album will be a special bonus. The band members are horror fans, and Mayberry evidently saw metaphors in women being stalked and slaughtered as she was writing songs for Screen Violence. The metaphors aren’t always subtle, for example, in the track “Final Girl”, where Mayberry alludes to the single girl who makes it to the end of the horror film:

In the final cut
In the final scene
There’s a final girl
And you know that she should be screaming

There’s a haunting aesthetic to the album, as Mayberry sings about loneliness and fear in a world full of assholes. Usually I’m left cold when bands get too retributive in their music, because that usually comes at the expense of good music. The politics overtake the art. If you’re U2 or Tracy Chapman, you can get away with it, but they’re exceptions. When Taylor Swift tried it, Reputation ended up a shitty album — and that’s usually the ordained result. But Screen Violence is another exception. For all its pissed-off overtones and social commentary, it’s actually a very mature album. But don’t take my word for it, listen to the entire thing. Here are youtube links to all the tracks, and my descriptions of what I think they’re essentially about.

1. Asking for a Friend – about personal regrets, lying and cheating, and penitence, but rising from the ash determined to do better

2. He Said She Said – a diatribe against gaslighting and the toxic standards placed on women; the album’s best track — which is impressive since it’s also the album’s angriest

3. California — freedom in failure; knowing when to give up because something isn’t working; in the context of California, it may seem like a dream state, but you might get mired there and die poor because you were a careerist ambitious person

4. Violent Delights — drowning in panic and paralysis; how the world takes its toll on you; Mayberry’s anonymous rape and death threats are in the background of this track

5. How Not to Drown — about not letting assholes grind you down, sung with Robert Smith; you can imagine The Cure writing a song like this

6. Final Girl — about perseverance and resisting pressures women face in the music business, while feeling powerless to change those pressures

7. Good Girls — writing off heroes who turn out to be assholes, and moving on; making peace with the way the world works

8. Lullabies — the nightmare of media culture; the link between real human suffering and our obscene consumption of that suffering in the news

9. Nightmares — the challenge of forgiveness; this track seems self-accusatory, given the retributive nature of the album

10. Better If You Don’t — the most uplifting song on the album, offering some hope

The D&D Editions Ranked

Most rankings of the D&D editions tend to focus on rules. My rankings weigh everything — the rules (players’ handbooks, DMs guides, monster manuals, etc.), the adventures (modules, gazetteers, campaign settings), the artwork, and the general mindset and culture of D&D gaming throughout these eras.

1. First edition (1e). 1974-1989. Of course it’s the best, and I include all the old-school versions — OD&D, AD&D, and even Basic D&D — when I talk about 1e. I used the AD&D rule books but celebrated the Basic and Advanced modules and gazetteers impartially; the excellence of those modules remains unsurpassed. This was D&D’s golden age (until 1983, at least), and the artwork alone was a clear indicator of something special. The rules were just enough because too many rules just got in the way. Haters of 1e complain that some of the rules were crude or nonsensical, and that’s true, but it didn’t matter, we just ignored those. (Is there honestly anyone who used alignment languages? I don’t remember even discussing the concept with the people I played with, it seemed taken for granted they were bizarre and silly.) Most of the rules worked fine, and they provided the framework, while adventure modules were the focus of the real excitement – pulp fantasy sandboxes left for open-ended play, in which players made autonomous decisions and DMs trained themselves for the unexpected. The focus was more on player skill than character skill, and it made the game hard, yes, but rewarding because of it; you had to really earn your experience points. Beating a dungeon or surviving a wilderness was a cause for rejoicing. The looming threat of death at any moment is what kept players on their toes.

2. Third edition (3e/3.5e). 2000-2003/2003-2008. For all its unconscionable sins of complexity, I have to doff my cap to Wizards of the Coast: they reignited my interest in D&D (it happened on a fateful day in 2005) after 14 years of not playing a single game. The 3e period wasn’t a new golden age, by any means, but it was a gilded age that reminded us why we loved D&D to begin with. The new spell system in some ways surpassed 1e: clerics and druids now had 8th and 9th level spells, and all spell casters had more to choose from. (I still use these spells in my grognard gaming scenarios.) 3e brought a darkness back into the game that we hadn’t seen since the ’70s and early ’80s, before D&D became so sissified. (I still use, for example, The Book of Vile Darkness (2002), which presents spells and devices for masochism, sadism, torture, disease, necrophilia, and demonology.) It was the most customizable of all the editions, with loads of options; you could play almost any race of any creature. But that was a two-edged sword, because with so many options — and with hundreds of skills and feats to choose from — running a character, let alone creating one, became way too complex. Combat wasn’t fluid anymore. And in the wake of 3.5, the ocean of rule books that came out was insane. But here’s the upshot: I pronounce 3e a success, because it drew me back to a hobby I thought I’d never pick up again. It snowballed into something overly complex and mechanical, but even that turned out for the better, because it pushed me back even further — to 1e itself, and made me realize that D&D didn’t need any upgrades. I fell in love with classic D&D all over again. That might have never happened if not for 3e. And as I said, there are elements of 3e that I continue to use in my 1e campaigns.

3. Second edition (2e). 1989-1999. Believe me, I wanted to rank it lower. This was the dark age of D&D, when modules were pure railroads, and the game had become sanitized in pandering to religious loons. The fundies claimed that D&D promoted devil worship, and so demons and devils were removed from the game, not to reappear until 3e. Some claim that the rules improved on 1e, but on whole I think they were actually more regressive. “THAC0”, for example, still drives me nuts when I see it. But there’s no denying 2e had the best settings of all the eras: the savage desert world of Athas, the gothic horror-land of Ravenloft, and other places far more inspiring than the artificial worlds of Greyhawk and Krynn. The problem is that the modules for these terrific worlds were shitty and as railroady as Dragonlance ever was. Also, these great settings were a source of divisiveness, as players latched on to one and wouldn’t touch any other. I played my last D&D game in 1991 (until 2005), mostly because I had graduated from college and suddenly didn’t have time for gaming anymore. But I was also very cognizant of how the game was deteriorating; I was losing considerable interest in it in any case.

4. Fifth edition (5e). 2014-today. Lighter on rules (take that, 3e), and less combat-focused so you can actually do some role-playing (take that, 4e), 5e emerged as the most mainstreamed edition to date, and it’s no surprise it has gained wide appeal. But this is at the expense of dumbing the game’s ass down to the umpteenth degree. 5e is ridiculously easy. You get a million hit points instead of ten, you get to roll two d20s when attacking or saving (and take the better of the die rolls), and if you do reach 0 hit points, you probably still don’t need to worry about dying. You can make death-saving throws until the cows come home, and roll hit dice during rest-stops in the middle of a dungeon. Seriously. 5e doesn’t feel remotely perilous, and for me that’s an epic fail. The adventures themselves are forgettable, the best ones being the 1e classics translated over. Worst about 5e is the tone, as it takes a high-fantasy approach that’s designed for a generation steeped in action superhero films — worlds away from the gritty (and deadly) pulp fantasy roots of D&D. On top of all that, Wizards of the Coast has been recently succumbing to woke pressures, in the same way TSR pandered to Christian fundies. Now, instead of erasing demons and devils, we have the erasure of “evil races” like orcs and drow, who have been “so terribly maligned” and should be portrayed as good, neutral, and evil as members of the human race. Newsflash to wokes: the idea that fantasy creatures like orcs and drow are evil isn’t racist, and pretending that it’s racist does nothing whatsoever to fight inequality in our world. All it does is rob the game of compelling ideas. (And if the wokes had half the sense God gave geese they would realize that ideas of evil bad-ass matriarchs encourage female empowerment if anything.)

5. 4th edition (4e). 2008-2014. The most short-lived and shit-stained. I’m sure there’s a school of thought that thinks it’s just swell, but it has no credibility in my eyes. 4e is just a tabletop MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game), in other words, a combat video game made for the table. You need miniatures, dice, and a table map — and next to no role-playing skills. It’s combat, combat, and more combat. In overreaction to 3e and 3.5e, all the complexity was chopped away so that everything had a bland generic feel too it. D&D was completely and ridiculously overhauled to favor tactical warfare over story. It was also — not to put too fine a line on it — a cash grab for miniatures. The differences between character classes were blurred to the point of absurdity; spells and abilities were replaced with powers. Why? So that everyone could feel equally powerful in combat; a fighter as much as a wizard. That may align with 21st century feelings for egalitarianism, but it’s stupid and unrealistic. At the lower levels, fighters should be more powerful than (and protective of) wizards, while at the higher levels, wizards should be the ultra-powerful ones. Then there was the one-size-fits-all “unification of worlds” theme — the eradication of various worlds and outer planes that made the D&D multiverse so fascinating and compelling. Enough said. I don’t even consider 4e to be a role-playing game. It’s a battle simulator without soul.

The Lost City (Epilogue): Fading

It may be an epilogue but it’s my favorite part. I knew I had to get it right, or there was no point in writing the novel. To get the boys back to Hawkins and provide a segue into season 1, after all they experienced in the Lost City, without it feeling like a cheat. I think it works and has the right emotional payoff.

                                             The Lost City — Epilogue:

                                     Fading

 

He knew before he raised his head that he was as a kid again. He’d been so long and tall that his truncation was obvious – an emasculation felt in every bone. Without thinking, he reached for his sword, but of course that security was gone; discarded in a room now demolished.

The air was warm as he opened his eyes. He was on his stomach, his head resting on a soft floor: fabrics of orange, green, and brown. The rug by his gaming table.

For a long moment he lay still, fearing to get up and look at his surroundings. He was terrified that everything he’d been through was a dream – or that his friends might try to persuade him of that. He needed reassurance it had all been real: the pyramid; Demetrius; the mushroom gardens; Jilanka; the desert; Areesha; the invasion; the feeding…

“Holy shit,” said someone standing over him.

He levered his arms under him, pushed himself to his knees, and stood. And at that moment Mike Wheeler realized how much he’d missed home.

It hit him hard, seeing his basement and all the familiars – the gaming table, couch, wall posters, the stairs going up to the kitchen. Then his friends: Lucas, who was already on his feet; Dustin who was slowly getting up; and Will, who was still on the floor. Lucas was the one who had spoken. He was doing a slow 360, taking in the room they had played in so often.

“We made it, guys,” said Dustin. “Jesus, we really made it back.”

“And we’re kids again,” said Lucas. “How do we go back to being kids?”

“Will,” said Mike, moving to help him stand. “Are you okay?”

Will stumbled a bit as he rose. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Look at me,” said Mike, holding the sides of Will’s face. Two normal hazel-colored eyes stared back at him. Thank the gods. He hugged Will fiercely, relieved for his friend’s liberation.

“Your hand looks fine too,” said Will, when they disengaged.

“Yeah, dude,” said Mike, holding up his right hand and waving it around. “Like it was never there.” But it made me invincible. He felt a pang of loss. They had reclaimed themselves, but at the expense of miracles that wouldn’t come again.

“We need out of these clothes,” said Lucas.

Mike only then registered that they had on Cynidicean attire. They were way too small for these adult clothes, except for Will. They were barefoot too, having thrown aside their cumbersome war boots (and Will his bedroom slippers).

“We need to save these clothes forever,” said Dustin. “They’re our only souvenirs of the Lost City.”

“Yeah,” said Mike absently. And they were something else: the assurance he craved. The proof that what they had lived through was real and not a dream.

“I’ll get some clothes from my room you guys can borrow,” said Mike. “For you too, Will. Your mom would freak out if you came home dressed like that.”

“Will, what made you do it?” asked Lucas.

“Huh?” said Will.

“The Temple of Zargon,” said Lucas. “You demolished that fucking thing.”

“It was a nightmare getting you out of that wreck,” said Dustin. “All the Magi who had levitate and telekinesis spells were putting in overtime.”

“Oh, you guys,” said Will, suddenly looking sick. “You’d never believe… the things I saw in that temple…”

“Hey!” said Mike, catching him. “Are you okay?”

Will looked pale and not okay.

“You need the bathroom?” asked Mike. “Come on.” He walked Will over to the basement bathroom. Will went inside without shutting the door, fell to his knees and was promptly sick.

He saw too much, thought Mike. Not just in that temple, but everywhere in the world, with that Eye. A child’s mind couldn’t take so much evil and trauma. Probably no one could, really.

Will threw up a second time and then came out, looking a little better. He rejoined them and sat down at the gaming table. “I’m okay. But I don’t want to talk about anything I saw in that temple.”

“It’s okay, Will,” said Lucas. “We have some idea. Kanadius told us about Zargonite sacrifice. I’m glad I never saw what they did in those rites.”

“I killed so many people,” said Will, putting his face in his hands.

“Whoa, Byers,” said Dustin. “You killed nasty people. The temple priests and warriors? They deserved to die. The zoombies on the island? Seriously. And Auriga? Don’t shed a tear.”

“There were innocent slaves and captives in the temple,” said Will.

“Jesus, Will,” said Dustin.

“You couldn’t even help yourself,” said Mike. “You had to be triggered. None of us had any idea how to trigger you.”

“It was my mom,” said Will.

“What?” asked Mike.

“When I saw threats to a mother, I think that’s what set me off,” said Will. “Not the first time. On the isle, it was just the shock over the Eye surgery. But Auriga told me he did something really bad to his mother. And in the temple I saw a mother and her kid… ” He shuddered.

“Will, you have no idea how much I hated having to hold you down for that Eye transplant,” said Lucas.

Mike felt sick remembering that. For a moment he relived his fury with Lucas. Then he remembered his shame over killing Lucas.

“Listen carefully, Will,” said Dustin. “You were never a bad person.”

“Yeah, I was the bad person,” said Mike. He looked at Lucas, hating himself all over.

Lucas shook his head. “You were cursed, Mike, just like Will.”

But I remember wanting to strike you down, not just feeling compelled to. I remember choosing you over Coval, as my fifth kill. I remember despising your pity, hating you and envying you. How much could be absolved and forgiven on account of a curse?

“Maybe,” said Mike. “But I think I failed you.”

“Don’t talk to me about failure,” said Lucas. “I was king and I failed my people a hundred percent. They all died. They’re dying now, in that other world.”

“Cut yourself some slack,” said Dustin. “It was a fucking earthquake, Lucas. In an underground. Fucking Hazor.”

“Which was my fault,” said Will. “Hazor did that because I -”

“Stop already!” said Lucas. “Maybe we’re all just a mess.”

“Lucas, you would have made a great king,” said Mike, meaning it completely. “You and Pandora… I would have followed you both forever. You and she could have made Cynidicea great again.”

“Agreed,” said Dustin. “But forgive me, I can’t for the life of me imagine you sharing a bed with that woman.”

Lucas looked thoughtful. “We did. Or the floor anyway.”

“What?” Dustin and Mike said at the same time.

“That night,” said Lucas. “After our crowning in the temple of Gorm. Dustin, you and Demetrius had already gone back down to the city. And Mike, you and Jilanka were in your room. The Brothers and the Maidens decided that Pandora and I should – you know – for good luck against the invasion the next day. They forced us into the shrine of Madarua and barred us inside. And said we could come out only after we ‘sealed our marriage’.”

“That’s hysterical,” said Dustin.

“The only time I got laid,” said Lucas. “The day of my crowning.”

“More times than I did,” said Dustin. “Demetrius tried for me. He asked Shira one night if she wanted to. He was going to let me drive during sex, but Shira told him to fuck off.”

“You’ll get there some day, dude,” said Lucas.

Dustin looked at Mike. “We won’t talk about all the filthy times you got laid.”

Mike was conflicted thinking about Jilanka. He missed her already, missed what they did in bed, and yet he didn’t feel those desires now that he was a kid again. He wanted to feel them. And then didn’t; feelings like that would only torment him, now that she was gone forever and probably dead.

“I need to get home, guys,” said Will. “My mom is going to kill me. I wasn’t supposed to come here today.”

“None of us should have come here today,” said Dustin. “And I am going to kill that fucking clerk at Rotten Gargoyle.”

Lucas looked alarmed. “I don’t know about that, Dustin. I think we should steer clear of that store, until we know that guy is gone. I mean, who the fuck is he to have a scroll like that?”

“Wait here, Will,” said Mike. “I’ll get some clothes for all of us. We all need to see our families again. But I don’t have four pairs of sneakers.”

Mike raced up the stairs and checked around the house before going to his room. He knew everyone would still be gone; his parents were out with baby Holly, and Nancy was over Barbara Holland’s. He couldn’t wait to see them all again.

A half hour later, the boys looked like Americans from the ’80s, courtesy of Mike Wheeler’s wardrobe. They went outside and rode their bikes home barefoot.

 

That night Mike was in his room, leafing through his comics. It had been forever since he read a comic book, but frankly they weren’t doing much for him. The stories seemed silly and overblown, with the superheroes winning too easily. Reality was a cruel teacher. Mike knew the costs of being a hero. And the devastating consequences of failure.

He heard the front door bang open downstairs and immediately forgot about the X-Men. Nancy was home. Mike’s heart raced as he heard her come up the stairs. He leaped from his bed and rushed out to meet her. She was at her bedroom door when he cried her name and flew into her arms, hugging her desperately.

“Michael, what the hell?”

He kept hugging her, his head against her chest. It felt so good to be home.

She finally pried him loose and looked at him, alarmed. “Michael, what’s wrong? What happened?”

He almost laughed at the question. “Nothing,” he said, turning around and going back to his room.

Dumbfounded, his sister followed him down the hall. She stood inside his doorway, looking at him as if he’d grown two heads. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine,” said Mike, getting back on the bed, and opening another comic. Spiderman. More silliness. Will was the true Spider Child.

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what that was all about,” said Nancy.

“It’s nothing, Nancy. I was just happy to see you.”

“To see me? We see each other every day.”

“I missed you today,” he said honestly. “Is it okay to miss my sister once in a while?”

She stared at him for a long time, then threw up her hands and left.

He knew she was going downstairs to tell their mother. And his mother would report that Mike had done the same thing to her hours ago, and she was just as mystified. They’d worry and they’d obsess. Let them. They’d get over it. He had more to get over than curious displays of affection.

A lot more, as it turned out.

 

The four boys didn’t see each other again until four days later. It was Friday, August 5, and the heat hadn’t let up. Mike missed the desert climate. The village of Suqatra had been scorching but at least dry. Indiana humidity was brutal.

Usually they saw each other every day, or every other, during summer vacation, but they’d needed time alone. To be with their families, and to process the fact that they weren’t adults anymore – or in Will’s case, a godlike seer – and that they were back in a world where they couldn’t solve problems by killing people. Their thinking had become medieval, and it clashed with the personas they had rewound to.

Mike’s basement was the eternal haven. There they could solve the world’s problems and their own. At the gaming table, no subject was too daunting or out of bounds. And on that Friday they did an oral tally of the pros and cons of this world and that. This world had flushing toilets, movies, bikes, games, cars, and all sorts of good food – donuts and pizzas especially. That world had magic, swords, spells, monsters, gods, and the stuff of epic legends. In the end it was a draw. Only Will came down squarely on the pros of this world. He had suffered too much in Cynidicea.

But they were all glad to be back. They rode their bikes that afternoon in the miserable heat, savoring the paths they’d always taken. They went to Sattler Quarry and imagined the Isle of Death out there, with zoombies waiting for Lucas to summon. Then they went to the movies to escape the heat. Two films caught their eyes: a fantasy called Krull and a new release called Risky Business. Normally Krull would have been the no-brainer, but they had lived and breathed fantasy for too long. They needed a dramatic change.

They loved Risky Business. Mike thought of Jilanka as he watched Tom Cruise fuck that gorgeous blonde through the night. The others thought it was the most racy sex they’d ever seen, but for Mike it was nothing. He and Jilanka had put to shame every whore in the multiverse. And yet, as he watched Cruise and the blonde go at it on the stairs, he felt an emptiness where fire used to be. The sex show was more amusing than arousing; Mike didn’t get aroused anymore. He felt like he had been erased in some way.

When the film ended, they left for home on their bikes, promising to see each other soon.

 

They saw each other next on the following Monday afternoon, one week after their return from the Lost City. As they ate cheese and crackers, and talked more about their re-acclimation into modern America, Mike noticed an alarming development: they were forgetting some of their experiences in Cynidicea. And not just details, but whoppers.

Mike couldn’t recall if it was the Maidens who had rooms on the second and third tiers of the pyramid, or if it was the Brothers. He remembered having his own special room with Jilanka on the third, but couldn’t remember where the rest of his sisters lived and slept.

“Sisters?” said Lucas. “You were never a Maiden, stupid. You were a Brother. And it was the Brothers who had rooms on both tiers. Their barracks was on Tier 2 and their temple was on Tier 3. The Maidens and the Magi had their barracks and temples on Tier 3.”

“Lucas, I was a Maiden,” said Mike.

Lucas looked at him uncertainly then laughed. “You fucked a Maiden, and I married one. You and I were Brothers, Mike. Don’t be silly.”

“We started out together as Brothers,” said Mike. “But later I… joined the Maidens.” He avoided saying, I betrayed the Brothers by stealing the Hand and giving it to Pandora. How could Lucas forget this?

“Yeah, Lucas,” said Dustin, making shapes with his cheese. “Mike joined the ladies. And Will got sick and I had to take care of him down in the city.”

“Sick?” asked Will.

“Yeah,” said Dustin. “You got a nasty disease. Remember, you could hardly talk? You ate mushrooms and got poisoning from them. I think.”

“No,” said Will. “The Eye triggered me. And” – he struggled to think – “I caused an accident in my room. And you took me out of the pyramid.”

“That was earlier,” said Dustin. “Your accident in the room. Man, I forgot about that. You really destroyed that room, Byers. But that accident snapped you out of it – whatever daze you were in at the time. That’s when you became the head librarian. For the Magi.”

“He became the Chief Mage, you idiot,” said Lucas, glad to be the one to rub someone else’s nose in a piss-poor memory. “Not a librarian.”

“Oh,” said Dustin. “Yeah. Christ, how could I forget?”

We’re all forgetting, thought Mike, suddenly scared. We’re forgetting what happened, because the spell was supposed to rewind us back to our original points, as if nothing happened. It did that to our bodies… but our minds are only slowly catching up.

He didn’t share that thought with the others. He was too sacred they were true. They couldn’t be true.

I don’t want to forget.

 

Over the next few days, Mike did his best to keep his memories sharp but found that was difficult. The harder he tried, the more he lost. It made him panic. What he and his friends had shared in the Lost City was sacred; miraculous. Terrible and tragic, yes, but precious too. They were life-defining experiences outside the reach of most people. Yet it was all starting to feel like a fleeting dream. The more he chased thoughts of what he was forgetting, the more they skipped over the horizon.

By the weekend – nearly two weeks after their departure and return – the events of the Lost City had become so fragmented they seemed almost unreal. The miracles were leaving him, and Mike found that to be far more terrifying than any of the horrors he faced in Cynidicea. Was this the same as dying? To lose things of great value and be unable to prevent their passing? To have those things fade in front of you, just out of reach as you grasped in vain?

That night he called Lucas on his walkie-talkie.

“Yeah, Mike. Over.”

“Lucas, I was thinking. About that day you were crowned in the Lost City.” When you hugged me and forgave me. “Do you think you would have made me your knight? Over.”

“What are you talking about, Mike? Over.”

“I mean… if things had worked out there. Would you have made me a knight, like, your special guard? Over.”

“You mean in our game?” asked Lucas. “Over.”

“No,” said Mike, feeling frantic. “It was real. Don’t you remember? I… I killed you, Lucas, and then you came back, and we charged the hordes of those Muslims, or whoever they were. Over.” Mike was in tears and trying to be quiet about it.

There was silence at Lucas’s end.

“Lucas? Don’t you remember?” Say you remember. “Over.”

“Mike, I… I have to go. Over and out.”

“No, Lucas, don’t hang up!”

But the talkie was already dead.

Mike threw himself onto the bed and buried his face in his pillow, crying harder than ever before in his life.

 

The next day he lost more memories, and before breakfast he sat down and wrote what he could remember. He wrote names down too, but some of them looked wrong, and it was a struggle to put faces to any of them.

That night his obsessed mind dreamt it all: Queen Zenobia and Lucas dying as a child. The ghost who ripped away years of their lives. The bird-man who molested Will, and then died at the hand of Mike’s rage. Magic mushrooms, and the wild sex that Mike’s body was no longer equipped for. The Isle of Death. The Eye, the Hand, and the misery that followed their uses. His murder of Lucas. The jihad. Life in the desert, with a sweet girl whose sister had been raped and executed. His return to the city. Lucas’s crowning. The Yshian invasion. Zargon, his Whelps, and the horrible Feed. The earthquake… and everyone dying…

Mike woke up screaming. He screamed for a long time, and then began crying – the deep cry of adult hurt. His mother flew into his room and clutched him to her, terrified, asking him what on earth was wrong. Nancy, roused from sleep, stood in his doorway, biting her fingers. She had never seen Mike like this.

His mother gave him a sleeping pill, and stayed in his bed holding him until he drifted off.

 

Two days after that, on Wednesday, August 17, Mike stood looking into his bottom clothes drawer. It was the drawer he used for costumes, mostly Halloween outfits, and it was in this drawer he had placed his Cynidicean clothes over two weeks ago.

He looked at the clothes for a long time. They drew memories, but only barely. He’d lost so much of the Lost City that he’d become convinced it was all a dream, that he’d confused with their D&D campaign. The clothes removed all doubt: those eight months had been real.

But it meant nothing if that time couldn’t be remembered.

It has to be done.

Mike removed the clothes from his drawer and folded them neatly into a plastic garbage bag. He was calm, Stoic even, as he tied up the bag and brought it outside to the trash. It was time to stop fighting and let go of the memories. They were almost all gone anyway.

It was for the better, he told himself as he walked back into the house. He was a child of twelve, not a drug-popping warrior who betrayed his vows, murdered his friends, and shagged a girlfriend sixty ways to Sunday. Experiences like that would come later, as he grew older in this world. When they did, he hoped that his experiences in the Lost City would inform him on a subconscious level, so that where he failed before, he might do right a second time.

But he would stop looking back. It was time to look forward and live as Demetrius had urged them to live, and reclaim the magic of childhood – not the magic of spells and curses, but of innocence that opened kids to raw possibilities.

He went inside and closed the front door, and with it the final page of his life in the Lost City.

 

That weekend, on Saturday morning, an excited Mike Wheeler came thundering down the stairs to answer the front doorbell.

“Move it, Nancy!” he yelled, pushing her aside and opening the door.

“Jesus, Mike!” She had been reaching to open it herself.

The trio was on his doorstep, all smiles. They’d parked their bikes in the driveway and brought their packs of D&D material. Dustin had a box of donuts too, from the local bakery.

“Did you get lemons?” asked Mike, letting them all in.

” ‘Did I get lemons?’, he asks,” said Dustin, throwing down his pack in the foyer, and flipping open the box lid for all to see. “Here we have lemon donuts – three – jelly donuts – three – chocolate glazed – three – honey-dipped – three – and French crullers – four. That’s sixteen donuts, four for each of us.”

“You guys are going to be sick,” said Nancy, looking at them from the living room archway.

“You’re sick,” said Mike.

“I love these crullers,” said Will, taking one right away.

“Jesus, help yourself, Will,” said Dustin.

“So will I,” said Lucas, snagging a jelly and biting into it. “Mm. These are good.”

Mike took a lemon.

Dustin turned to the living room. “Do you want one, Nancy? I can do with three.”

Nancy rolled her eyes and walked off.

“Come on, guys,” said Mike, his mouth full of lemon gel. “Downstairs. I have something to show you.” He picked up Dustin’s pack for him and led them all downstairs to the basement.

At the gaming table, the dungeon master screens were up and the dice were out. Mike was ready to punish them.

“This better be a good module,” said Dustin, putting the donuts on the table and sitting down. There were cold Cokes that Mike had brought down, and he passed one to everyone. “We haven’t had a good game in over a month.”

“Yeah, not since the Lost City,” said Will, sitting as usual across from Mike, and facing the staircase. “This summer went by way too fast.”

“Tell me about it,” said Lucas, taking his place across from Dustin, with his back to the lounge area and the TV. He opened his can of Coke. “The last three weeks have been a fog. We hardly saw each other at all.”

“It was too hot,” said Mike. Since yesterday, the highs had been down to the low 80s, and the infernal humidity was gone.

“So what do we have?” asked Dustin.

From behind the dungeon-master screen, Mike produced the module, showing them the cover: The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun.

They peered at it, eager.

“What is that thing?” muttered Lucas.

That “thing” on the module cover resembled a unisex featureless humanoid surrounded by writhing snakes of various colors – black, purple, green, and yellow. It was deeply unsettling.

“Wow, that’s creepy,” said Will, all excited.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” said Mike. “It’s going to be a weird adventure. But before we start, I’ve got even better news. I’m designing my own module.”

“Gods help us,” said Dustin.

“It’s going to be a killer,” promised Mike. “And this is what you have to look forward to.” He opened the Monster Manual to the “D” section, turned to a page, and slapped the book down on the table. He pointed to an awful looking creature.

They leaned over to look.

“The Demogorgon?” asked Will.

“Jesus,” said Dustin, reading the description under the creature. “We’re in deep shit.”

“That thing is a nightmare,” said Lucas.

“Just you guys wait,” said Mike. “I started mapping out the dungeon last night. It’s going to be a campaign that will take at least ten hours to play.”

“When will it be ready?” asked Lucas.

“Not for a while,” said Mike. “I’m putting a lot of thought in it. Maybe in a couple months. I’ll try to have it done by Halloween.”

“Ten hours,” said Dustin. “It took us almost that long to play the Lost City.”

“Yeah,” said Mike. He felt a sadness, for some reason, when Dustin said that. “But the Demogorgon will smoke the Lost City.”

“Well, cheers to the Demogorgon,” said Lucas, raising his Coke. “And Mike’s killer module.”

“To the Demogorgon!” they all shouted, clicking their cans.

Mike smiled, relishing life – friendship, D&D, donuts, and all that was good and fun. If there was more to it than that, he didn’t care to know. The dice rolled and the quest took off. He put his friends in a bad place, and they had to enact bizarre rituals to escape. They hollered, protested, threw the dice, and laughed.

It was a great, great game.

 

THE END

(Previous Chapter: Feed Me)

The Lost City: Feed Me

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 Sixteen:

                                     Feed Me

 

The attack began at dawn. It was dawn in the Lost City when the ceiling lamps swelled in sudden brightness, regardless of what the sun was doing on the surface. The lamps were huge orbs that radiated magic light for twelve hours, then dimmed to a bare glow for the same duration to let it be night. They were fastened to the ceiling by clamps – gods only knew how the first Zargonites had gotten them up there – hundreds of them, spaced at the right intervals to give the undercity the light it needed in all the right places.

Crouched behind ruined buildings by the lake bridges, Mike wondered about the upkeep of those lamps. The Zargonites were no longer in power and wouldn’t be replacing orbs that ran out of magic or needed recharging. Another problem for Lucas and Pandora to think about. They’d put the Magi to work on it.

Next to him, Jilanka swore. The invaders were entering the city. Being quiet but not terribly cautious, as they had no clue what was waiting for them. A thousand of them, supposedly. Will had said about 300 of the jihadists were being supplied by Sayid al-Naji from the town of Sulba. The caliph had also ordered the Emir of Makistan to send 700 jihadists from Parsa, since Cynidicea was technically in Makistan, though close on the border. So a thousand total, and no reason to question Will’s judgment. Still, Mike wished the poor kid wasn’t zoned out. Sometimes his visions changed, and his original prediction was two weeks old. An updated report would have made everyone feel better.

“Get ready to smash these fuckers,” said Mike, waiting for Lucas’s signal.

“You want to keep score?” asked Jilanka. She had told Mike she’d thought of taking a berserker mushroom, but in the end chose to respect her king and queen’s prohibition against drugs. Besides, she had nothing but contempt for the Yshians. To rely on drug-rage would be an admission that she couldn’t kick their asses straight up. She was high enough – on confidence. And confident enough to want to keep score against her boyfriend who wielded the Hand. Mike thought of Gimli and Legolas at Helm’s Deep.

He also thought of Aragorn taking the Paths of the Dead. Behind Mike and his Maidens stretched a horde of 340 zoombies. Over on the other side of the lake, Lucas and Pandora commanded the Gormish warriors with another 340. Each side was supplemented by Magi from the Usamigarans. Between the 680 zoombies and the sixty warriors and mages from the old cults, the Lost City was defended by 740 against the thousand invaders. Lucas believed it would suffice. Mike wasn’t so sure. It all came down to the strike force of these zoombies. He knew their savagery, but worried about their discipline and obedience. So far, though, they seemed to be obeying Lucas’s commands to a tee. Even on this side of the lake, by proxy, under Mike’s command.

At first Mike had resisted command of the south side, and told Pandora the night before:

“You should be leading the southern attack,” he’d said. “You’re the queen.”

“As your queen, I delegate command as I please,” said Pandora, her eyes blazing. “Do you agree?”

“Of course,” said Mike. “I mean, yes, your Grace. I just think you’re better for morale than I am.”

“Nonsense,” said Pandora. “You wield the Hand of Gaius. Your near invincibility will ignite morale more effectively than any crown. What good is the Hand if it’s not put to visible use? You’re perfectly suitable to lead the Maidens.”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“If you want to second-guess me, you can use that Hand to scrub the latrines.”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“And it’s better that I command the Brothers anyway. Some of them have a weed up their ass about taking orders from a woman. Lucas and I agreed they need to get used to obeying their queen – right away.”

Inspired by this wisdom, Mike had chosen Jilanka to share command of the southern force. He’d signal when to charge the invaders, but let her manage everything up to that point. Lucas and Pandora were right. Share the rule.

The zoombies started growling. They could smell the invaders three hundred feet away. Mike looked back and silenced them with a downward slash of his hand.

Edgy little fuckers.

Only hours ago, Lucas had summoned this undead army and led it across the lake. It was like something out of both the Bible and The Return of the King. Demetrius had prayed a control water spell to part the waters of the lake. Lucas had walked down to the Island of Death, entered the remains of Vark’s Ring, and summoned every zoombie that his crown would channel. It might have been a thousand – a perfect match for the invading army – but because Will had slain over three hundred zoombies during their quest, it left less that could be summoned at any given time. Lucas was able to summon 680 of them. The zoombies had materialized, fawning over Lucas like dogs snapping for prey. They followed him back through the parted waters. Citizens came to watch – in varying degrees of alarm, nonchalance, or laughter. With acid you could hardly predict.

The results would be predictable enough if the drug heads didn’t steer clear of the west side. Priests from all the strongholds were organizing efforts to keep citizens safe in their homes.

Come on, Lucas. What are you waiting for? The northern forces were supposed to signal to Mike when the king was ready to charge. Mike could see jihadists pouring in the northern entrance, and he cursed Lucas again. They had to act soon. They couldn’t stay hidden in this light, and couldn’t afford to lose the element of surprise.

Seconds later, from across the lake, came the dancing lights signal from one of the Magi.

Mike motioned to everyone behind him and led the charge. He ran over one of the lake bridges as Jilanka bounded over the other. The other Maidens and the zoombies rushed behind them both. Ahead of them at the southern entrance, the Yshians were appraising the interior of the Lost City. Then they saw the defenders and cried in alarm, drawing their cruel-looking scimitars.

No need for silence anymore. Holding his sword high, Mike screamed as he ran straight at the them: “Kill these fucking desert freaks!”

The Yshians screamed back: “Panna-jois!!!”

Mike knew what panna-jois (pronounced “panna-zhwah”) meant from his months of living in Yshia. It was a holy litany: kill the infidels.

Infidel me, assholes.

With twenty Maidens and over three hundred zoombies, Mike Wheeler smashed into the horde of some five hundred invaders. His sword was everywhere at once, inside the gut of one Yshian, through the neck of another, chopping off the arm of a third. His right hand was a blur, his sword blade impossible to get a fix on. He sliced a fourth one down, and then plowed deeper into the horde.

“Panna-jois!!!”

The shriek came from behind, and a scimitar lodged itself halfway into his neck. Mike felt the odd sensation of being wounded fatally without blood or pain or loss of momentum. The wound closed and his neck healed in seconds, as he spun to face his attacker. The Yshian gaped, unable to believe his eyes, and raised his scimitar for another swing. The Hand of Gaius gave the man his own medicine: Mike’s sword buried itself halfway into his neck – and then went all the way through, sending the head rolling.

The furious cries of the Yshians were drowned by shrieks from the undead. The zoombies tore the invaders apart limb from limb; for every zoombie that was killed, two jihadists went down. The undead were feral; one and half times as fast as a human being, and twice as savage as a devout jihadist. They feasted from their kills as they leaped on the next invader.

“Panna-jois!!!”

Mike was exhilarated by blood lust, imagining Malik’s face on every screaming jihadist he cut down; the murderer of his own sister, for the crime of being raped. How Areesh could live with Malik and call what he did honorable. Mike killed and killed, took wounds that healed, and realized that he had thrown himself so deeply into the enemy that he could barely see his own army anymore. He caught sight of a Maiden being run through by a jihadist. He saw a zoombie turning an Yshian into raw hamburger. A blade came out of nowhere and went into his stomach – his reward for stopping to stare. Furious, Mike grabbed the blade with his hand, tore it out of him, turned, and disemboweled the Yshian with his own scimitar.

“Paaaanna-joooois!!!”

Mike swore. That was a voice he recognized, and it wasn’t far. He was pushing in closer to the western wall. Then he saw the figure. It was Omar, the mullah from Sulba, who had interrogated him at the Jalal home. The cleric was frothing at the mouth – in a towering fury that the tables had been turned on his invasion so quickly.

Mike roared, slashing his way forward. He was going to kill Omar with his bare hands. Two jihadists attacked him, and his leg took a slice before he felled them. Then the mullah was right before him. His eyes locked on Mike and widened in shock. Mike laughed. Omar knew nothing of Will and the Eye; he obviously thought Mike was the reason the city was so well prepared. Good. Glad you think that.

With both hands he threw his sword at an Yshian coming straight at him. It spun in the air and smacked the jihadist’s head with the pommel. The man cursed and kept coming. Mike ignored him and lunged at Omar, seizing the mullah by the arms. Omar screamed. Calculating, Mike spun the mullah around at the moment his attacker brought down the scimitar that would have cut open Mike’s back. Instead it bisected Omar’s face, from his forehead down to his chin. For good measure, Mike bear-hugged the mullah’s neck, heaved, and snapped it. He dropped the corpse at his attacker’s feet.

The jihadist yelled in fury at what he’d been made to do, and raised his weapon on Mike – and then his head went sailing as a sword took it off. Mike saw Esranet standing before him. She was the deadliest swordswoman aside from Pandora, and judging from the blood she was covered with, she had evidently killed as many Yshians as Mike. He looked around and saw other Maidens nearby, and zoombies pouncing on jihadists. Unbelievably, there were few invaders left standing.

“That was too easy,” said Esranet.

Mike looked at her, smiling. “Zoombies. They put us to shame.”

She made a face. “Your Hand put us to shame. You should kill yourself.” She walked off scowling, and casually stabbed an Yshian lying on the ground, half-dead.

Even in victory that bitch is foul.

And then it was over. Five hundred Yshians lay slain around the southern entrance. The invaders had killed about half that many zoombies. Between eighty and ninety of the undead remained, feasting now on Yshian corpses. Eight of the twenty Maidens had been killed: three from the pyramid temple, five from the Madaruan stronghold.

It was a better victory than anyone had dared hope for – assuming that things had gone just as well on the north side.

Mike looked over and saw that Lucas’s forces were killing off the last Yshians. There was no surrender. Per the commands of The Raysh, every jihadist went down dying, in order to obtain the highest reward in the afterlife. Their attempt to bring the Dream of the Desert Garden to Cynidicea had massively failed. But there were plenty more Yshians out there, and Mike was sure they would come in stronger numbers. The jihad went on. Always. Those who denied the Prophet had to be slaughtered.

We’ll be ready for them. Between Will’s Eye, my Hand, and Lucas’s crown, we can defend this city.

But that self-assurance rang hollow. What if the Caliph sent ten thousand jihadists next time?

“How many?”

He turned and saw Jilanka, bathed in gore. “What?”

“I killed five. You?”

“I don’t know,” said Mike. “Thirteen, maybe fourteen.” Including that filthy mullah. Burn in Hell, Omar.

She laughed. “That Hand is handy. Let’s go see our king and queen.”

Mike looked up at the north end, where zoombies were satisfying their appetites. Mike thrilled to the savaging of the invaders’ corpses. He spotted Lucas and Pandora amidst the carnage, talking to the surviving Brothers. “Yeah, let’s go.”

“Maidens!” called Jilanka. “To our king and qu -”

She was interrupted as screams pierced the air, high and shrill. They came from all the way over on the east side of the city – the hub of the population.

Mike swore, fearing they had been fooled by a decoy army. Had another jihadist army come down the pyramid? But no, that was impossible. The pyramid entrance was too well defended, and the pyramid itself a death trap on all tiers for the uninitiated.

Then he saw what was over there, and his day turned black.

No. 

“Madarua,” breathed Jilanka, unbelieving.

You can’t be serious.

It towered high in the air, at least thirty-five feet. Its head was reptilian, with a horn that curved upward above its single eye. Mike knew it all from the gaming module. The mouth dripped saliva around razor-sharp teeth. It had six “arm” tentacles, three on each side of its torso, ending in razor-sharp talons. It moved by slithering forward, on six “leg” tentacles. He could see the arm tentacles lashing the air like whips, seizing people on the streets, raising them high in the air – and then shoving them into the maw, to be swallowed in a slurping gulp.

Zargon. He’d been loosed.

“A Centennial Feed,” said Jilanka. “We’re fucked, Mike.”

So this was Hazor’s revenge. In return for his temple and priests being wiped out, he was unleashing a Feed right on top of an Yshian invasion. Demetrius had once told him that the high priest had a magic device that could release Zargon from his lair – a teleportation device that worked only once a century.

Feed me. Will hadn’t been asking for food. He had seen the future and channeled the beast’s hunger.

The Centennial Feed was the most sacred tradition to the Zargonites, the most appalling one to the old cults, and the most feared one by the Cynidicean population. It was an apocalyptic threat because of what came from Zargon’s mouth. His saliva was an acidic slime that reproduced death on the spot. Anyone spat on by Zargon, or bitten by his teeth, collapsed into a puddle of ooze that began transforming into a Whelp of Zargon: a mindless Cthulhu-like amoeba that spread the same disease with its bite. There was no shortage of victims, because they were acid heads. They feared phantoms, not their own Deity; many embraced death or transformation. Those who ran and hid weren’t necessarily safe: Zargon’s tentacles reached through doors and windows.

A Centennial Feed lasted for three whole days.

“Fucked,” repeated Jilanka.

“Not if I can help it,” he said. He rallied his team. “Maidens! To the main avenue!” He barked a command at the zoombies, who broke off from their own feed. They readied to follow Mike, still bound by his proxy command until Lucas released them.

As they raced back over the bridges to the east side, Mike looked left and saw Lucas and Pandora’s group doing the same. They were closer to Zargon than he was. The creature was on the main avenue between the strongholds of Gorm and Usamigaras. In front of the communal dormitories, where he could do plenty of damage.

More screams tore the air.

They reached the main avenue between the Usamigaran and Madaruan strongholds and turned left. On their immediate left, the Zargonite temple lay devastated; a mountain of rubble, courtesy of Will. Down the street about three hundred feet, the Devourer was terrorizing the population. Masked Cynidiceans dashed about everywhere, whooping in ecstasy. Others knelt in the street, praying – some to the monstrosity before them, others to gods that never existed. A few recited elaborate scripts, using the main avenue as a theater stage. Others had sex with the nearest person. The beast was indiscriminate: he made them all his feed.

“Mike!” Jilanka and the Maidens had stopped.

“What?” he said, stopping, out of breath.

“We’re not going down there,” she said. “You can’t kill Zargon – not even with the benefit of the Hand. He’s a god.”

God, my ass. “He’s a cretinous monster.” But the more he thought about it, he knew she was right. Whatever his precise nature, Zargon couldn’t be killed. In D&D terms he had a whopping 342 hit points. And that blasted horn: if you did somehow manage to miraculously kill him, he would simply regenerate and return to life. The only way to permanently kill Zargon was to remove his horn and destroy it in the lava pit on the west side of the city. Zargon was effectively a god; practically invincible.

Unless Will could kill him.

Mike looked at the Usamigaran stronghold on their right. Will was in Demetrius’s chamber, still catatonic. Demetrius had returned to the stronghold after parting the lake’s waters for Lucas. Do I try? Mike had no idea how to trigger Will.

There was a sudden furor down the road. Shrieks of rabid animals. Lucas’s zoombies. Scores of them were assaulting Zargon, giving the acid heads a temporary reprieve. Behind him, Mike’s zoombies howled, craving a target. He barked a command, sending them to join the attack on Zargon, and to leave any people alone. They poured down the street in fury.

“Oh, that was a shitty idea,” said Jilanka.

“What do you mean?” asked Mike.

Jilanka began answering, but was cut off by a cry from one of the Maidens:

“Our king and queen!”

Lucas and Pandora were running down the street towards them. They had emerged from a back street onto the main avenue just slightly ahead. They were alone without the Brothers.

“What do we do?” asked Mike, when they arrived. “It’s a Centennial Feed!”

“We retreat to the strongholds,” said Pandora, in a tone allowing for no debate. “And take any citizens who wish to come. Most of them won’t.”

That’s where they had probably sent the Brothers: to the stronghold of Gorm.

Lucas nodded, catching his breath. “Get inside and stay away from windows. Our strongholds are defended with outer walls, but take nothing for granted. It’s going to be three days of Hell, especially for the Zargonite citizens.” He looked down the street. “That thing is fucking huge.”

The chaos down there got worse. There were weird moaning sounds – like people drowning in mud.

“Shit,” said Jilanka.

“What’s happening?” asked Lucas.

“Not to criticize you, Your Grace,” said Jilanka. “But all those zoombies? They’re not doing any good, and they’re being bitten. In a few hours they’ll be Whelps of the Devourer.”

Pandora swore. “I’d forgotten about the Whelp legend.”

“And they’re undead,” said Jilanka. “Try to imagine a zoombie Whelp. We’re going to see plenty of them.”

Mike cursed himself. There were nearly two hundred zoombies attacking Zargon. He was beating them off like flies and either killing them – strangling them with his tentacles swallowing them whole – or spitting on them, and letting them collapse into a puddle of ooze. It must have been the pools of ooze making the weird moaning sounds; they were beginning the hideous transformation process. They’d be Whelps in a few hours.

“Great gods,” said Lucas.

More citizens were arriving to play or pray in the street. Mike couldn’t believe it. It was too surreal. Zargon roared, still smacking down the zoombies. His tentacles lashed everywhere. He killed, devoured, and transformed by his whim. And the people played hopscotch under his nose. Took off their clothes and danced. Sang songs, prayed prayers, and masturbated to ecstatic climaxes.

They were all about to become the next feed – to die or be made into Whelps.

“Let’s get inside,” said Pandora. “Maidens, into your stronghold! I’ll be joining you there.”

The Maidens obeyed their queen and left for the Madaruan fortress. Except Mike. Jilanka looked back at him, and Pandora frowned.

“Your Grace,” said Mike, addressing Pandora. “Would it be okay with you if I join the Usamigarans? Will is there, and he doesn’t say much except my name. Maybe I can reach him. And if I can reach him, maybe he can kill Zargon.”

“Maybe he can also bring this city down around our ears,” said Pandora.

“Maybe,” admitted Lucas. “But I think it’s worth a try. To slay this beast once and for all.”

Pandora hesitated and then nodded. “Very well.”

“I’ll use backstreets to get to the Brothers’ stronghold,” said Lucas to his queen. “Between me, you, and Raen, the three strongholds will be in good hands.”

Mike walked up to Jilanka. “I’ll see you in three days.”

“Good luck with Will,” she said, and then left with Pandora.

Lucas looked at Mike before leaving. “We kicked their asses.”

“What?” said Mike.

“The Yshians,” said Lucas. “That was good work.”

“For all the good,” said Mike.

“All we need to do is wait out this Feed,” said Lucas. “Or if Will can be reached…” He left it hanging.

Mike nodded. “I’ll try. See you in three.”

Lucas left, and Mike walked over to the Usamigaran stronghold. He hailed the gatekeeper, who recognized him and threw open the double doors. Mike went inside, glad to get away from the slaughterfest.

 

It was three days of unremitting hell. Zargon left not a street uncovered – as long as he could fit down it. The east side of the city was his stomping ground, but he went everywhere, sniffing all corners. He moved by sliding; reaching out with his leg tentacles to pull himself forward. As he went, he left slime and body parts behind him.

The only place he avoided was the west side. Somehow he knew the lava pit could be the end of him. But many of his Whelps were drawn over there, especially the zoombie Whelps. They’d been feasting on Yshian corpses when they had to break off at Lucas and Mike’s commands. Now they finished their feast in a new form – as slaves of the Devourer.

The Whelps were insidious because, unlike their Master, they could hide in shadows. By the second day, the streets had been cleansed of all rhapsody. Those who saw Zargon as cause for celebration had been devoured or Whelped. Everyone else hunkered in their dorms and boarded up the windows. They came out for air, when the Devourer was hunting somewhere else, because they needed food. They plundered abandoned shops and raced back home. But some of them strayed. They were still acid heads after all. And the Whelps were waiting to pounce, in alleys and around corners.

And then there were kids. Mike was on top of the outer wall of the Usamigaran fortress when he heard two of them screaming not far below. A Whelp was assaulting them. It looked like Zargon was up in the area of the mushroom gardens; far away for the moment. Mike raced down and out the front gate of the stronghold, ignoring the advice of the gatekeeper that he stay inside. It was probably sound advice. He had the Hand, but he doubted that Gaius’s enchantments made him immune to being Whelped. The Hand protected against damage, not transformation.

Outside the gate he saw the kids right away: a boy maybe eight and a girl maybe ten. An amoeba-like mass with four tentacles was lashing at them, its jaw slavering. It had the kids cornered against the wall of a building. Mike yelled and drew his sword, glad that it was magical. He doubted that normal weapons would harm a Whelp. When the kids saw him racing to their rescue, they made a dash for it. That was a mistake. The Whelp was ignoring Mike, fixated on the kids. One of its tentacles snapped the air and snagged the girl like a lasso. She screamed and Mike swore, running harder. The Whelp pulled the girl close, opened its jaw wide, and spat. Brown slime drenched the girl and took effect at once. She shook as if with a fever of a hundred and ten – and then collapsed into a pool of ooze, right as Mike reached her. The boy wailed. Mike slashed the Whelp with his sword. The creature moaned and backed off in surprise, not used to being hurt. Mike grabbed the boy and picked him up with his free arm, and then ran back to the stronghold right away. He got the kid safely inside, and had him sent to the communal hall. The boy kept crying for his dead sister. Gods knew who or where his parents were, if they were still alive. Slaughter and transformation were everywhere.

But at least the goblins are safe. Halle-fucking-lujah. The goblins lived in cliffs on the west side of the lake, and their caves were accessible only by ladders and handholds cut into the rock. Zargon and his Whelps didn’t bother trying. Living inside cliffs had its benefit during a Feed.

Through it all, Will remained a stone. Mike tended to him, brought him his meals, and tried coaxing him into more awareness. He would croak Mike’s name occasionally, but nothing more, not even his previous mantra.

” ‘Feed me’,” said Mike. “I had no idea what you meant.” Just tell me it ends okay. Tell me we can pick up the pieces and get this kingdom off its ass and back in the running.

And then Will did look at him. His Eye bulged with a bad promise. “Back.”

Mike sat up straight. Had Will just read his mind? Was he saying yes, that the kingdom could get back on track, like in the days of yore? But then why did Will look like demons were standing in front of him?

The answer came on the third day, in the late afternoon. Mike was on wall patrol when suddenly a concussion shook the air. It sounded like an earthquake, rumbling the city’s ceiling hundreds of feet above. Mike looked up and around. Zargon was over by the ruined buildings where Mike had waited to ambush the Yshians. It didn’t look he was doing anything to cause this.

A sharper convulsion came. Mike swore as huge chunks of rock came crashing down on buildings and into the streets. One struck the wall he was standing only a few feet away.

He raced down into the courtyard where he saw a guard. Mike asked him if the city had ever had earthquakes before.

“Earthquakes?” the guard said. “Are you insane? Someone is doing this to us!”

Mike thought of going to see Raen, but he needed answers, not counsel. He left the stronghold through the gate and went out into the main avenue. Not a soul was anywhere to be seen, but plenty of rock that used to be the ceiling. Mike looked up. Most of the ceiling was still there – but it wouldn’t be for long, if this went on.

The next concussion reverberated like an indoor thunderclap. More ruin came down. A piece of rock smashed Mike’s head; if not for the Hand he’d have been out cold or dead. When the dust settled, he heard laughter off to his left. He peered through the dust and walked towards the sound. The laughter grew louder. Then the dust cleared, and his bowels almost burst. Less than a hundred feet ahead he saw Hazor. He had seen the high priest twice before at a distance, when he was down in the city on errands, and from about the same distance he was now. The High Priest of Zargon was standing on top of the building to the catacombs, shrieking laughter. His arms were spread wide in the air, welcoming the apocalyptic onslaught.

The crazy son of a bitch had prayed an earthquake spell. In an underground.

“Hazor!” yelled Mike, running toward the catacombs building.

Another convulsion ripped overhead. To his left, a boulder smashed the wall of the Madaruan stronghold, tearing a curtain of it off. Around him, rock fell everywhere. Hazor roared approval.

He’s committing suicide. And taking every goddamn Cynidicean with him.

Mike reached the building and looked up. “Cancel that prayer, Hazor! What the fuck is wrong with you?” Mike had no idea if the prayer could even be cancelled.

The priest looked down on him, his eyes lit in ecstasy. “Yeeeeessss! All prayers cancelled! All of them! The Devourer heeds them not!” He shrieked more laughter, as the ceiling took another dump.

“Hazor!” Mike screamed, dodging rock. “You’re going to kill us all!”

“Yeeeeessss!” laughed the priest. “All and everyone! The Devourer claims the world!”

Mike knew he was being stupid trying to talk Hazor down. This was what the high priest wanted. How did one negate an earthquake spell? It couldn’t be done. You’d need a wish spell or some equivalent miracle.

He turned and ran back to the Usamigaran stronghold. He had no idea what to do. There was nothing to do. The roof was about to bury everything.

When he reached the front gate, he heard a cry from the northern end of the road. He looked and saw someone running towards him. The figure shouted his name.

Mike’s heart leaped. “Lucas!” He waved his hand high.

The next tremor brought down so much rock and dirt that Mike thought it was the end. But the ceiling hadn’t collapsed yet. He yelled at Lucas to hurry. The King of Cynidicea dodged death in every direction, and finally met Mike at the gate. They took cover under the overhang.

“What made you come out in this shit?” demanded Mike.

“I got a flare from Demetrius,” said Lucas. That meant a sending prayer: a telepathic message. “He told me to come here right away, and to risk my life if necessary. What the hell does he want?”

“Fucked if I know,” said Mike.

“What are you doing out?”

He told Lucas about Hazor. Lucas couldn’t believe what he was hearing. As Mike finished, Lucas swore and pointed.

Mike turned and and looked. “Holy shit,” he said.

Zargon was at the catacombs building, looking down at his highest servant. The servant who had visited him weekly in the pyramid. The only human being allowed on that bottom tier. The only one with the privilege of feeding Zargon, whether weekly or centennially.

Who now had the privilege of being the feed.

Zargon swiped Hazor into the air, snapping the high priest back and forth. Rock rained down, some of it on Zargon’s head. The creature was unfazed. He toyed with Hazor some more, and then used his talons to rip the priest open. Hazor was still screaming in ecstasy as his disemboweled body was chewed to pieces by the beast he’d served his whole life.

It made no difference. The earthquake couldn’t be stopped.

The ceiling tremors became more constant as Mike and Lucas rushed through the gate, across the courtyard, into Demetrius’s chamber. The priest was waiting for them and Will was in his chair. Will’s Eye stared monstrously at them as they entered.

“Thank the gods,” said Demetrius, looking at Lucas. He turned to Mike: “Where the hell were you?”

“I went outside,” said Mike. “Hazor caused the earthquake. And Zargon just ate him.”

“I figured it was Hazor,” said the priest. “Good riddance. Not that it matters.”

“Demetrius, why did you bring me here?” demanded Lucas. “The people of this city need me to do something. I’m their king.”

“Your people don’t stand a chance,” said Demetrius. “I’m sorry, Lucas. This city is coming down and nothing can stop it. And Zargon has fed on the population like never before – there wouldn’t be much of a kingdom left to rule anyway.”

“I don’t accept that!” shouted Lucas.

“Why did you want us here, Demetrius?” asked Mike.

The priest looked at Will and then at them both. “To send you all home. All four of you. You three and Dustin. And to say good-bye. It’s time for me to let myself die, as I should have on that first day you all came here. After I killed my brother.”

“Whoa, slow down,” said Lucas. “We’ve been through this already. There’s no future for us in our world.”

“Lucas, look around you,” said Demetrius. “As of now, there’s no future for you in this world.”

Another convulsion tore through the city. More rock came down. Through the window of the room came faint but horrible screams. Homes were being destroyed. People were dying.

“Demetrius,” said Mike, “you just told me a few days ago that the ‘Black Passage’ spell doesn’t work in the reverse direction. You said that you tried to send Will home and the spell failed.” This was during Mike’s exile in Yshia, shortly after he killed Lucas.

“I lied,” said the priest.

“Obviously I never heard about this,” said Lucas.

“Listen to me,” said Demetrius. “I was selfish. I love Dustin and sharing his body with him, and it made it easy for me, since he likes me too. I love all of you. I didn’t want to see any of you go. You were aliens and offering this city a fresh hope, even with all the setbacks. And then the Brothers asked me to resurrect Lucas, and then, of all things, Lucas restored the monarchy. But it’s all for naught. This city is gone.”

“No,” said Mike. He knew he was in denial but didn’t care. “I mean, there’s always recovery after a Centennial Feed. It happens every century.”

“There’s never been an earthquake,” said Demetrius. “Never a high priest so insane and bent on revenge that he wants to self-destruct. The city is caving in. Most people will die, and those who don’t will wish they had – with Zargon and his Whelps on the loose.”

“I’ll take my chances,” said Lucas. “If these people are going to die, then I can die with them. I’m their king, Demetrius.”

“Ditto,” said Mike. “These people are my own. Besides, I can’t go back to Hawkins ten years older and with this Hand. I’d be a freak. They’d put me in a lab.”

“No,” said Demetrius. “When I said I lied, I was lying about a lot.”

“What do you mean?” asked Lucas.

“I told Will that the ‘Black Passage’ spell didn’t work in reverse after trying to send him home. But the reason it didn’t work is because I wasn’t reading it properly. In order to get back to your original world, the spell has to be read in reverse – you have to read the spell backwards. I knew this, but like I said, I didn’t want any of you to go.”

“So?” asked Mike.

“I lied about more than that,” said Demetrius. “I mean, I’d been keeping crucial information from you all along. When you read the spell in reverse, it sends you back in reverse. Your bodies reverse, biologically, to the state they were in when you left, and they arrive at the exact point in time you left.”

“Are you fucking serious?” said Mike.

“That’s a shitty thing to keep from us, Demetrius,” said Lucas.

“I know,” said the priest. “And I won’t blame you to hate me for it. I was selfish. I wanted to keep living, and I wanted you all, as Dustin’s friends, to stay here too. There’s no point in any of that now. I can send you back, leave Dustin’s body, and you’ll return home as twelve-year olds. Will won’t have the Eye and Mike won’t have the Hand. And no one will have missed you.”

Mike was poleaxed. “But -”

Another concussion: a storm of rock pulverized the stronghold. The floor and walls shook. People in the fortress were screaming now.

“No arguments, please,” said Demetrius. “It makes no sense for any of you to die, when you have your original lives to live for. Your families to go back to. Please. Come here.”

Demetrius embraced them then, and drew them close to Will. He took out the scroll and prepared to read. Mike looked at Will, then at Lucas. They nodded to each other.

“Take off your armor and weapons,” said the priest. “Your boots too. The less weight, the less likely the spell will malfunction.” They hurriedly did as he instructed, throwing their boots and metal aside.

And as Demetrius began the incantation, Mike wept. For the Lost City he’d come to love; for Jilanka; his Maiden sisters; for everyone who was about to die. But also positively, for the life he was returning to. Home. I’m going home. We’re going home…

The spell read backwards sounded like a prayer from the Grim Reaper. The words were thick as syrup. They clung to the body and worked it over, sent it spiraling back to a long forgotten point. Mike felt himself breaking apart, then coming together, and falling apart again. Oh God, what’s happening? He was still in Will’s room in the stronghold, but also in the Black Passage, straddling two worlds. Breaking down and reassembling. His mind ballooned as it shrank; his body a contradiction. Terrible amounts of time seemed to pass in the space of no time at all, and as he finally came together for good, he heard the spell end.

And then Demetrius’s fading voice, as he let Dustin go and himself die: Remember me kindly, boys, if you’ve the grace for it. I love you all.

Mike cried, unable to say good-bye. As he and his friends disappeared, the roof of the Lost City came down entirely, as final as the end of an age. Heavier than sorrow, greater than loss. Nothing would revive Cynidicea; few would remember it.

Mike would remember it though. Or so he thought, as the blackness swept him away.

 

Last up, the Epilogue: Fading

(Previous Chapter: Everything Unholy)

The Lost City Reincarnated: Comparisons with my Novel

Only recently was I made aware of a special series of reincarnated D&D modules. These are more than just 1e classics with a 5e make-over, which I generally have no use for. What Original Adventures Reincarnated does is reproduce the 1e versions exactly, followed by a hugely expanded 5e version that retains the old-school vibe. There are more maps and new encounter areas, written for 5e, yes, but with a distinctly 1e tone. There are also essays written by grognards who reflect on why these classics have such enduring value. (James Maliszewski has articles in all the ones I’ve acquired.) I can hardly imagine a greater homage.

So far the following modules have been brought back: The Keep on the Borderlands (2018), The Isle of Dread (2018), Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (2019), The Lost City (2020), and Castle Amber (2020). Next month will come The Temple of Elemental Evil (2021). My wish list is for Vault of the Drow and Dwellers of the Forbidden City, as they would be perfect to flesh out with this kind of expansive detail.

But I’m here to talk about The Lost City. Readers know how I feel about the original and I hardly need to repeat that praise here. Others have read my novel of the Lost City, and I’m pleased at how well it’s been received. But if I’d only known of the reincarnated module when writing that novel! This product is simply a dream come true, leaving not a stone uncovered in the Cynidicean underworld. Everything, and I mean everything — the temple of Zargon, the strongholds of the old gods (Gorm, Usamigaras, and Madarua), the goblin caves by the lake, the mushroom gardens beneath the catacombs, the Island of Death, the volcanic Eye of Zargon, and more — is done justice, and provides material to keep a campaign going for months if not years, depending on how often you play at the table.

To start with the goblin caves, they’re more impressive than anything I imagined, and populated with more than just goblins. The goblins inhabit the first two levels, under a king and a snake-handling shaman (whose altar-room is best avoided at all costs). The militant hobgoblins rule the third level under an efficient warlord. The fourth level has many domains: a hill giant cave, a troll cave, two ogre lairs, and a thoul lair (seven of them ruled by a nasty necromage). Honestly, these caves are more inspired than even the Caves of Chaos, and you could get as much rewarding adventure from them as the B2 classic. Some of the encounter areas depend on 3D visuals, as they span more than one level simultaneously. The cavern entrances are on a sheer cliff face, and the four levels are accessed by climbing poles, zip lines, and rope bridges — all of which can easily kill you if you’re not a proficient climber or scaler, like the goblins are.

The lower catacombs contain some of the most dangerous places in the Lost City (aside from the temple of Zargon and Zargon’s lair in the pyramid), with nasty surprises spread across five immense caverns. The most significant one is the mushroom farm, cultivated by myconids in thrall to a mind flayer. This is where the module writers place the mass production of hallucinogenics, the drugs that ensure the Cynidiceans will be kept enthralled in a dream-like state so the Zargonites can easily control them. In my novel I didn’t do anything with the catacombs; I had most of the drugs grown in the public mushroom fields (at Area A, below, as opposed to under Area G; click map to enlarge):

However, I left unanswered the question of where the powerful priestly mushrooms (used exclusively by the Zargonite priests) were grown, and so the shroom farms under the catacombs could have served my purposes in any case. (For clarity, in my novel I put most of the drug-shrooms in the public gardens at A, under heavy guard: hallucinogenic, sedative, amphetamine, poison, and medicine. I suggested that the priestly shrooms might be grown in the catacombs, but left it a mystery. In the reincarnated module, none of the mushrooms in the public gardens are drugs and they aren’t guarded; all the drug-shrooms are under the catacombs.)

Moving to the Isle of Death, I wasn’t surprised to see its size inflated. In the classic module it had a puny diameter of 60 feet. In my novel I stretched it to a liberal 80 feet. The reincarnated module gives it 120 feet. So obviously I wasn’t the only one who thought the original was way too small. I have since amended my 80 feet to 120, following the reincarnation, and the dimensions of the stone ring accordingly, so that my characters aren’t crammed onto that hellish rock like sardines in a can.

As for the temple of Zargon, my version is a close cousin of the one in the reincarnation. It’s the largest building in the city, obviously the most notorious and where all the power resides. Here’s how it looks (click to enlarge):

If you reworked the entry hall as below, and then add a fourth floor (in my novel, I call the 2nd-4th floor tower “Zargon’s Rise”), then it’s pretty close to what I imagine (click to enlarge):

Also, I staffed the temple with more warriors. In the module there are 37 priests/cultists, and only 16 warriors (for a total of 53 staff). In my novel I have 25 priests and 60 warriors (36 Cynidiceans and 24 hobgoblins) (for a total of 85 staff). It’s simply unrealistic that the Zargonites wouldn’t have a lot of manpower at the ready, to maintain control and keep the old cults from rising up in revolution.

Finally, let’s consider the strongholds of the old cults, whose deities I adore impartially: Gorm, war god of thunderstorms, justice, and law; Madarua, war goddess of birth, death, and the seasons; Usamigaras, the cherub-hobbit deity of magic, thievery, and chaos. These cults are what make the Lost City so fun and ripe for identity politicking. In my novel, Mike and Lucas begin as proud Brothers of Gorm, but Mike ends up betraying the Brothers for the Madaruans — becoming the first male Maiden in centuries — when disillusioned by Gormish doctrine. Will and Dustin have little use for either, preferring the libertarian practices of the Magi. But all the cults have their problems, they can barely co-exist with each other, and they seem to give fuck-all about opposing the Zargonites when they have themselves to snipe at over petty resentments. Kanadius, Pandora, and Auriga are the stars of the Lost City, or at least of the pyramid; it would have been nice to see more cult leaders teased out in the underground strongholds. The layout designs are fine, but I imagine the inhabitants a bit differently, on two key points.

First, I imagine citizens living in these strongholds, safe behind the walls and under the protection of the cult they elect to follow instead of Zargon. And I imagine less warriors (for Gorm and Madarua) and mages (for Usamigaras), for the same reason I inflated the number of warriors for the Zargonite temple. If the old cults have too much of a fighting or wizard force, it becomes harder to explain why they don’t suspend their feuds and rise up against the Zargonites.

Second, I imagine priests running the strongholds. In the module, the strongholds are led by the same warriors or mage who lead the temple cults: Kanadius, Pandora, and Auriga. So apparently these three divide their time equally between the temples far up in the pyramid and the strongholds in the underground. I don’t buy that. I keep Kanadius, Pandora, and Auriga based in the pyramid, and they only occasionally visit the underground. The strongholds are instead run by priests. In my novel, the Gormish high priest is Zoran, the Madaruan high priestess is Fiana; and the Usamigaran high priest is Raen.

Here’s exactly how our differences break down:

Reincarnated module

Stronghold of Gorm – 29 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Madarua – 37 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (all magi)

But a total warrior/wizard force of 91 is a bit much, especially with a Zargonite temple force of 53. There’s no way the old cults would have remained submissive to the oppressive Zargonites (for centuries) with numbers like these.

My novel

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

This gives a total warrior/wizard/priestly force of 35, which is much more realistic. It’s enough to hold their own, but clearly not enough for an effective rebellion, against (my) Zargonite temple force of 85, in addition to the reserves they can summon. (Interesting that the total number of inhabitants I came up with for the strongholds is either the same as the module’s or very close, though I did have a bit more for Gorm, factoring in his popularity and seniority in the pantheon.)

The layouts of these compounds work pretty well for my purposes. I didn’t write any scenes that take place inside the strongholds of Gorm or Madarua, but I did for the stronghold of Usamigaras. This is the reincarnated module layout (click to enlarge):

 

M1. Double-door gate. Opens on a command word known to the Magi.

M2. Walls patrolled by 4 Magi on rotating shifts.

M3. Living quarters for the Magi. 6 mages in each (24 total).

M4. Archive. Massive library.

M5. Office. Card catalog to search the archive library.

M6. Study cubicles. Six of them, for private research.

M7. Living quarters for the Chief Mage, Auriga.

M8. Lower level testing ground for the Magi.

As stated above, I imagine only 5 mages, not 24, and in place of the chief mage Auriga (who stays up in the pyramid temple) I have the high priest Raen, who is assisted by two other clerics. And I also imagine citizens living here — Cynidiceans who bravely refuse to worship Zargon. Here’s my reworking of the map (click to enlarge):

 

M1. Double-door gate. Opens on a command word known to the Magi.

M2. Walls patrolled by 2 Magi on rotating shifts.

M3. Living quarters for the Magi. 1 priest in the upper left, 1 priest in the upper right, 2 mages in the lower left, 3 mages in the lower right (7 total).

M4. Archive. Massive library.

M5. Office. Card catalog to search the archive library.

M6. Study cubicles. Six of them, for private research.

M7. Living quarters for the high priest Raen.

M8. Lower level testing ground for the Magi.

M9. These new areas I add are the communal living quarters for citizens who have openly rejected Zargon and worship Usamigaras: 6 adults and 2 youths in one, 7 adults and 2 youths in another (17 total).

M10. Not sure why the module doesn’t have a mess hall; it does for the other two strongholds. Probably an oversight. This is where I put the mess — with tables, benches, and a cooking hearth.

You get the idea. The other two strongholds can be just as easily modified to accommodate what I imagined for them.

Verdict

I can’t stress enough how wonderful these reincarnated classics are, and the Lost City in particular. Part of me wishes I’d known of it before I wrote my novel, but the other part (the stronger, I think) is glad I was only afterwards made aware of it. It might have stifled my imagination, and I really like what I came up with, especially for the old-cult strongholds. I also like my idea of the drugs being cultivated in the open fields (though under heavy guard), rather than secretly in the catacombs, except for the especially powerful shrooms.

 

Appendix: The Population of the Lost City

According to both the original and reincarnated modules, there are about 1000 adult Cynidiceans in the Lost City. That would mean about probably 200 youths (under age 16). Here’s how the demographics break down in the module, followed by what I came up with in my novel. In each case, about 1200 Cynidiceans and 400 humanoids.

In the reincarnated module

In the Underground City

Throughout the City – 1038 (838 adult citizens, c. 200 youths)
Temple of Zargon – 53 (37 priests/cultists, 16 hobgoblins)

Stronghold of Gorm – 29 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Madarua – 37 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (all magi)

In the Goblin Cliffs – 260 (of which 122 of them – 61 goblin and 61 hobgoblin warriors – are at the emergency call of the Zargonites), broken down as follows:

— 182 goblins (king, queen, shaman, 61 warriors, 118 non-warriors)
— 62 hobgoblins (1 warlord, 61 warriors)
— 16 “giants” (1 hill giant, 6 ogres, 8 thouls, 1 troll)

At the Catacombs – 164 hobgoblins (30 at the entrance, 134 in the depths), plus other creatures (darklings, myconids, etc.) (This force of hobgoblins is also used to patrol the main streets of the city)

In the Pyramid

Temple of Gorm – 11 (1 Grand Master, 10 warriors)
Temple of Madarua – 10 (1 Champion, 9 warriors)
Temple of Usamigaras – 13 (1 Chief Mage, 12 mages)

In my novel (for the Census of Cynidicea taken in the year 1052 AC).

In the Underground City

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

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

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

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

In the Pyramid

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