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 Fifteen:
Legba was blowing hard when they reached the broken wall. It was just as Mike had left it, a beaten reminder of ancient glory. But he’d left in the blinding heat of day. This was the desert night, under a full moon and biting cold.
He’d punished the horse to get here, doing it in three days, having no idea when the jihadists would arrive. Hopefully Will had seen them and everyone was forearmed. But Mike knew that Will’s prescience was up for grabs. Will could see everything, theoretically, but it didn’t all come automatically. Omniscience was too much in that way for the human mind. Sometimes he had to focus to See, and that meant knowing what he was looking for to begin with.
The broken wall was broken as ever as he cantered up to it, bypassing the hidden entrances. They were tunnels into the ground, a quarter mile outside the wall. Two of them, spaced about three hundred feet apart. Built to function more as emergency exits than entrances, in case something happened to the pyramid. Mike wanted to stop and be sure they were hidden and locked down, but he wasn’t about to chance it for fear of Yshian spies.
Legba carried him through the ruins and up to the pyramid. The statues of Gorm, Usamigaras, and Pandora loomed larger as he got closer. He suddenly couldn’t wait to get inside. Knowing that welcome would be in short supply.
The horse was on the verge of collapse when Mike let him stop. He hated what he had to do next. There was no place for Legba in the Lost City, and it was impossible to get a horse down the statue ladders anyway. He swung off the horse and reached up to pet its nose. For four months Legba had been his best friend. His previous ruffian owners had abused him. Mike’s eyes filled with tears and he hugged Legba for the last time. The horse snorted, exhausted and thirsty. Mike stepped back a few steps and drew his sword. Good-bye old friend. With two hands he swung the blade. Legba’s headless body fell on the sand. In the moonlight the blood ran black.
I killed my best friend when I left, and did it again when I returned. Heads off in a stroke. He sheathed his sword and looked up at the gods. He saw what they were thinking. He didn’t deserve any friends.
He climbed the pyramid steps to the top, bypassing the door into Tier 1 which was a death trap. At the top he looked out over the land, scrutinizing for invaders. It was quiet as Sheol, but he couldn’t see far in the night. I beat them, he thought, confident it was true. I beat those bloodthirsty killers. But by how many days?
The holy trinity seemed somehow alive as Mike walked under them. He realized how badly he missed it here. For months he’d suffered through diatribes against god-worship, bigotries against infidels, and non-stop venom from Areesha’s brother. It had been worth it for her, but he saw clearly now that Yshia could have never been home to him. It was a land of virulent hate and suffocating oppression.
He knelt before Madarua and mumbled an orison from the Circle, praying that Pandora wouldn’t take his balls for running off. When he finished, he stood and opened the secret panel on Madarua’s leg that led into the hollowed cylinder, and descended the ladder to Tier 2.
Darkness covered him in his downward climb, and he cursed, pausing to take a torch from his pack and light it. He wanted his magic sword back – or another magic sword – that made fueled light unnecessary. He’d come prepared when he left Suqatra, buying a couple of torches in the village the morning of his departure.
He reached bottom in the statue machinery room, and took the door that led to the stairwell going down to Tier 3. It also led to the room he had shared with Lucas, if he were to ignore the stairwell and continue down the corridor.
Which of course is what he did.
At the door of his old room, he put his ear to it, trying to determine if the chamber was occupied. This was Brotherhood territory, and while Mike didn’t fear for his safety – he wore the Hand of Gaius – he didn’t want to intrude or cause offense. He had betrayed his Brothers and cut them deep. They’d never forgive him and that was just. Hearing nothing, he pried the door open. It was dark inside, like the hallway, but someone could have been sleeping. He thrust his torch inside the room and saw no one. He went inside.
The Brothers had left the room unoccupied. The two beds he and Lucas had used were still there, but the sheets and pillows were gone. There was the table and two chairs, and also their treasure chest. He guessed it was empty. He put his torch in a wall clamp and sat on his old bed. Reached down and opened the chest. Empty indeed.
He looked up, startled. “Lucas?” He looked around the room. There’s no one, you fool. He wanted his friend back so badly he was hearing him.
It was too much then. Mike broke down and cried. Hard, harder than he’d ever cried, emptying himself of months of suppressed hurt and self-loathing. He remembered Lucas, the nights in this room when they’d stayed up late talking and laughing, instead of getting the sleep their bodies craved. Their childhood in Hawkins, back when anything seemed possible, and they were prepared to take on the world together. Mike had believed friendship was pure, and nothing could shatter that sacred bond. Lucas…
He cried as he felt what it really meant to suffer. It went on for a long time. Eventually he quieted, and when he did he froze; someone else was in the room. To his right, by the door to the Brothers’ treasury. He turned slowly, and saw him. His would-be executioner: Kanadius. The old warrior looked harsh enough to swallow nails.
Mike wiped his eyes. He didn’t get up from the bed, though it would have been appropriate; he didn’t think he had the strength to stand in front of Kanadius. He waited for the Grand Master to speak.
“You hurt for what you did.”
Kanadius was unmoved. “It’s good that you suffer. Did you just arrive? From the desert?”
“Yes,” said Mike.
“You’ve not seen Pandora?”
Mike shook his head.
“Are you still sworn to Madarua?”
Kanadius nodded. “Then go downstairs to your Maidens. Get out of here. Don’t ever let me see you in our rooms or temple again.”
“If you want to kill me, I won’t stop you this time,” said Mike. He meant it.
“No. I’m letting you go because I’m bound to. And because it would probably take a hundred swords to kill you anyway.”
“Kanadius, I have to tell you something. I have to warn you -”
The old warrior cut him off. “We know. The Yshians are coming. They’ll be here in five days.”
“Will?” asked Mike, relieved.
Kanadius nodded. “And thanks to you, those bastards know of the secret entrances.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I had no idea -”
“And thanks to Will, we’re all going to die,” said Kanadius. “Both of you have brought destruction on Cynidicea.”
“What?” Mike felt ice in his blood. “What do you mean? What did Will do?”
“Ask Pandora,” said the Grand Master. “I don’t have the stomach – or the time for you – to talk about it.
“Okay, fine.” Mike stood up. “But, can I… I know I have no right to ask this. But, did you keep my sword when I dropped it? Can I have it back? Or did you give it to a Brother?”
Kanadius looked disgusted. “If you think any Brother would wield the sword that cut down Gorm’s Chosen, then you’re a fool as much as a traitor. But yes, I have it. It’s stored in the treasury, and I’d like it out of my keeping. Wait here.” He turned and walked into the room he came from.
Mike felt like a slug as he waited. He hated himself more than he could bear.
The Grand Master returned with Mike’s enchanted sword and gave it to him. As soon as Mike grabbed the hilt, the blade filled the room with its clear light. He went over to the wall and put out the torch.
“For all the good that blade will do you,” said Kanadius. “Thanks to you and Will – the Hand and the Eye. In fairness, I bear some of the blame. I accepted the risks of Gaius’s gifts. Gorm will judge me accordingly.”
Mike had to say one more thing: “You didn’t let Demetrius resurrect him.” Already knowing this without being told. “Why not, if Will and I are such trash in your eyes? If things are so bad, don’t you want Lucas back?”
“It doesn’t work that way, Mike. You don’t get off that easy. Your friend’s death is something you’ll have to live with.”
“I’m not thinking of myself! I’m trying to understand you! You believe that Lucas was Gorm’s Chosen, even though he was resurrected. The lightning tattoo appeared on him during the initiation rite. Why wouldn’t you want your chosen prophet resurrected again?”
“I don’t owe you an explanation!” Kanadius shouted.
“Okay!” said Mike. “I’m not challenging you. I’m just trying to understand. Do all the Brothers not want Lucas back?”
“We miss Lucas,” said Kanadius. “But bringing him back isn’t for us to decide. Just because Gorm used Lucas to reveal his will doesn’t mean that resurrection is suddenly a good thing – and it’s certainly not to be exploited for self-serving reasons. I believe that Lucas fulfilled his role. His time on this earth is over.”
“How?” asked Mike. “What role did he fulfill?”
“He sacrificed himself for a fellow Brother by letting his best friend kill him,” said Kanadius trenchantly. “That’s as exemplary as a prophet can be.”
“I guess the others agree with you,” said Mike, stung. “Have any new Brothers joined to take the place of those I killed?”
“They don’t all agree, actually,” said the Grand Master. “Our ‘fanatics’, as you once called them, have urged that we allow Demetrius to resurrect Lucas. Especially now that Will has destroyed any hope for us.”
Mike had no idea what Will had done, but the fact that Azariah and Moser were pushing for Lucas’s resurrection surprised him. Then again, maybe not. The fanatics had believed that Lucas was Gorm come again. They despised resurrection more than the other Brothers, but they also believed Lucas was a god, and thus not bound by the taboos against resurrection.
“We have two new Brothers since you left,” the Grand Master continued. “Roose and Garoman passed their initiation rites.” Mike remembered the two young men from the stronghold. “Don’t come anywhere near them, or the rest of us. Now for the last time, get out.”
Mike bowed to Kanadius to show respect, and then left. He went down the corridor and took the stairwell to Tier 3, wondering what the hell Will had done. Three guesses, genius. He was triggered and killed people; he killed people and destroyed things; he killed lots of people and brought down buildings. He sprinted down the stairs and the hall to the revolving passage, and pressed the button next to the door.
Another wave of nostalgia hit with the grinding of the turntable. Mike forced back tears. He had used this passage so often, like people from his home world used elevators in the big cities. The passage rumbled and stopped as it aligned with the southern door. Mike opened it.
He stopped as soon as he stepped inside. Someone was opening the door aligned with the northern corridor. His heart raced. Please don’t let it be a Brother. Relief flooded him when he saw it was a Maiden. Then panic took hold when he saw who it was. Their eyes locked.
She hasn’t changed. Still wandering everywhere. She used this passage more than all the Maidens – and Brothers and Magi – combined.
It was four months and he still hadn’t come to terms with his feelings for Jilanka. She’d sent Lucas after him, all but knowing what Mike would be forced to do. He hated her; loved her; wanted to kill her, but needed that other thing they’d done so often.
Not a word as he stalked towards her. She met him in the middle, and they attacked each other hungrily, kissing and clawing and until the clothes were off. They had their unholy way right on the floor of the passage, mindless for brutality – unfazed in the least as to who might happen by. If it was the end of the world, honestly, who cared what anyone thought?
“What’s it like out there?”
Their old routine: she held him and stroked his hair, using questions to subtly accuse. His guard was always down after sex. But now there was Sauce. The wolf had bounded around the room yipping during their love-play. He had remembered Mike and was jubilant over his return.
“Awful,” said Mike drowsily. He was exhausted from the three-day ride and their two-part bang. First on the floor of the passage, then again here in their old bed. Without drugs; he didn’t need them after four months of abstinence. “You’d hate it.”
“Yet you stayed out there. For months.” Massaging his temples. “Couldn’t have been that bad.”
Oh, it was. And this is paradise. Mike hadn’t slept in a real bed or had sex while staying at the Jalals. A floor mattress was his bed; Areesha his platonic doll.
He drifted, but Jilanka wouldn’t let him sleep. “You belonged here. With us.” She squeezed the back of his neck hard. “With me. In this room.”
“Ow,” he said. This room had been theirs for four days, after his grisly induction into the Maidens. He’d been given a Hand, and she’d been given a choke pear up the cunt. Nothing like the week before – their insane fuck-fests in the abandoned temple close by – but they had become more intimate here, in more tender moments. Pandora had cruelly humbled them both.
“Did she expel me?” he asked.
“Pandora?” said Jilanka. “No, of course not. When she met with the cult leaders – it was like, nine days ago – Will said that you hadn’t renounced the Maidens.”
“Will’s right.” Christ, that kid sees everything. He shrugged off his weariness and sat up next to her. Sauce left his spot on the floor and leaped up on the bed to lie at their feet.
“He misses you,” said Jilanka. The wolf had bonded with Jilanka, and she’d let him have the room to himself during Mike’s hiatus. She had taken care of him, fed him, and taken him down on her trips to the city. More than Auriga had ever done for him. But he’d gotten lonely without anyone living in the room.
“You need to tell me everything,’ said Mike. “How is everyone preparing for the invasion, and what the fuck did Will do to make things worse?”
She explained to him the deal. The tentative pact with the Zargonites, contingent on Will’s behavior as their honored guest. That was two nights ago. Apparently things went fine – right up to the final hour of the ceremonies, at midnight, when Zargon’s Rise exploded like a bomb. Then the rest of the temple began to blow apart. In the end, the Temple of Zargon was a pile of rubble.
The Usamigaran priests and Magi had rushed across the street. Their stronghold was across from the Zargonites, and the explosion had sounded like the apocalypse. Demetrius, Raen, and Shira worked with their five Magi, and between levitate and telekinesis spells, managed to liberate Will from burial under twenty feet of rock. They took him into the Usamigaran stronghold. He was near catatonic, in the same way he’d been after decimating the Isle of Death. He didn’t respond to anyone and didn’t say a thing.
“Except one thing,” said Jilanka. “Your name.”
“Me?” asked Mike.
“Once in a while he’d croak, ‘Mike’, according to Demetrius.”
“Who explained all this to Pandora,” said Mike.
“Pandora met with all the cult leaders the next day, and Demetrius told them everything he knew. And then Pandora summoned us to give us the bad news.”
Mike swore. “The Zargonites won’t help us anymore. Obviously.”
“Most of them are dead, anyway,” said Jilanka. “The Usamigarans saw the temple survivors retreat into the catacombs – which if you ask me is pretty stupid, even for Zargonites. Demetrius says less than a quarter of the temple force survived. Maybe five or six priests and about twenty warriors. Hazor was one of them though.”
“Piece of shit,” said Mike. “He had to be the one who triggered Will.”
“I don’t know,” said Jilanka. “If that were true, wouldn’t Hazor be among the dead?”
“Maybe,” said Mike. “I don’t know. Will keeps asking for me?”
“Yeah. You need to go see him. He’s still down in the stronghold. Demetrius is taking care of him, I guess. Or Dustin. Or both.”
Now Mike saw what Kanadius had meant by the the Hand and the Eye being responsible for the Yshian victory. Because of the Hand’s curse, Mike had killed his Brothers, including Lucas, which caused Mike to flee into the outside world, where he revealed the Lost City’s existence. Because of the Eye’s curse, Will had destroyed the Temple of Zargon, killing their alliance with the Zargonites – their only chance against the Yshians.
“Well, then what’s the plan?” asked Mike.
“There is no plan,” said Jilanka. “We wait, defend ourselves as we must, and then die as we must. There’s nowhere we can run. You know that. Will explained it to the cult leaders: the surface world is an Yshian hell. Their ‘Dream of the Desert Garden’. It’s coming for us.
“And you accept this?” said Mike, feeling helpless. Of course she accepts it. What choice is there?
“We can’t arm the people and give them berserker drugs. They don’t respect the old cults, and most of the mushroom supplies were stored in the temple. A lot of the drugs are gone now.”
“Do you think the gods are laughing at us?” asked Mike. “We went to get the Eye and Hand in order to bring down the Zargonites and their drugs.” Well, not the drugs necessarily. The Usamigarans had no problems with mushrooms, if they were taken willingly by adults, and Mike and Jilanka had thought the drug war waged by their fellow Brothers and Maidens was stupid. “Now that we’ve succeeded bringing down the Zargonites, it turns out that’s exactly what’s going to kill us.” There’s no end to Gaius’s curse.
“I think Gaius is the one who is laughing at us, somewhere,” said Jilanka, as if reading his mind. She leaned over and kissed him. “Mike, we need to make the most of the next five days. I’m not scared of dying. I’m scared of dying alone. I’m glad you came back. Can you… forgive me for Lucas?”
No. But I can’t forgive myself either. He hugged her. “This room is ours for the next five days. And to hell with anyone who tries saying otherwise.” I’m a wretch like you. We deserve each other.
“Pandora told me to leave it untouched, in case you came back,” she said. “She won’t object.”
Mike sighed. “I know I need to see her, and the rest of my sisters. I was coming down to do that. But I’m so tired. It’s late. First thing tomorrow?”
“They’ll wonder where I am,” said Jilanka. “Go to sleep. I’ll tell Pandora you’re back and we’ll see her in the morning.”
Mike was already asleep.
Pandora ripped his face the next day, but not half as bad as he’d expected. He was still counted a Maiden. For what it was worth. Madarua’s Champion could afford to be gracious. They were all going to die or be enslaved in four days.
Mike spent the morning with his sisters, who accepted his return in varying degrees of indifference. They too had resigned themselves to the inevitable outcome of the invasion. Like their Champion, they were going down fighting, with praises on their lips to the goddess. Mike was proud to be among them.
In the afternoon, he went down to the city to see Will. The Eye Child was being cared for by Dustin/Demetrius in the Usamigaran stronghold. It was a repeat of Auriga’s babysitting after the quest to the Isle. Will was – on the outside, at least – a near vegetable. When he started to shake, he was fed his painkiller mushrooms. Once in a while he’d stand up to walk around his room, or go to the latrine, but his legs didn’t cooperate well.
Mike sat by his chair and held his hand, trying to stir any discussion. Will croaked his name a few times, but nothing else. Until Mike got up to leave. It was evening by then, and Will suddenly reached out and seized Mike’s arm. For the first time he looked directly at Mike, his Eye bulging with intensity.
Surprised, Mike sat back down. “Yeah? What is it?”
“Feed me,” croaked Will. He sounded like a dying parrot.
“Uh, okay, yeah. I’ll get something from the kitchen.”
But when he came back with a tray of light supper – soup, bread and a bit of manyan – Will ignored most of it, except for a few spoonfuls of soup. He repeated himself, looking intently at Mike: “Feed me.”
“I don’t understand. You want something else?”
Will shook his head. “Feed me.”
Mike sighed, clueless.
He stayed with Will a while longer and then returned to the pyramid. Sauce and Jilanka were waiting. He tumbled with the former, in a playful wrestle, and then got in bed to tumble with the latter. All the while he couldn’t stop thinking of Will. He’d been trying to tell Mike something but didn’t have the voice for it.
The next two days were an exercise in non-preparation. The clerics of the old gods invited to shelter as many citizens in their strongholds as they could accommodate, but most of the people didn’t care. They were acid heads. News of war made them laugh, and cry, and prance in the streets. Masks and costumes were all the refuge required.
The Temple Magi had joined the other Magi down in the stronghold. They belonged with their chief, even if he was catatonic. The Temple Maidens and Brothers remained in the pyramid, with Pandora and Kanadius presiding over rites heralding an apocalypse on par with Ragnarok. This was the first time the Lost City had suffered an invasion since the Goblin War of the fourth century. The Zargonites had subjected the goblins and made them their bitches, giving them the cliff caves above the lake. Thanks to Will, there would be no Zargonite salvation this time. Hazor and his remnant flock apparently had no intention of fighting the Yshians. They had fled the catacombs to the pyramid, and taken over the Rooms of Judgment on Tier 9. Right above the tier of their hideous god.
The day before the Yshians were due, Dustin came looking for Mike. It was early afternoon, and Mike was in his room resting. Jilanka was down in the city, trying to enjoy the last day of her life. She needed her space and to walk the streets alone. Mike answered the door. Dustin stood there looking pale; he was sweating like a pig.
“What happened to you?” asked Mike.
“Never mind,” said Dustin. “You need to come with me, right now.”
“No, Dustin. You need to come with me, Mike.”
“Is it Will? Is he -”
“Mike!” yelled Dustin. “You need to come right now.” He turned and left the room without waiting.
Mike swore and hurried to catch up. He followed Dustin to the revolving passage. Inside Dustin pressed the button that began rotating their end of the hall to the southeast door: the Temple of Gorm.
“Hey!” shouted Mike. “I’m not going there!”
“Uh yeah, actually Mike, you are,” said Dustin.
“I’m banned from there, you idiot! What’s wrong with you?”
“You’re not banned anymore,” said Dustin.
The passage stopped, locking in place at the door he’d fled so long ago. Cries for his death had trailed him to the desert surface. There was no way he was going down that hall. “Dustin, what’s going -”
Dustin told him to shut up. Mike followed him, fingering the hilt of his sword. Kanadius wants another swing at my neck, and he’s finally worked his nut up. It’s the end of everything, so why not?
When they reached the temple door, he froze at what he saw. Nausea smacked his gut, and he drew his sword reflexively.
“It’s okay,” said Dustin. “Put it away.”
It was not okay. There was a head hanging on the wall next to the door. Nailed into the wall with a long iron spike. Kanadius’s head.
Mike looked at Dustin. “What the fuck?”
“The fanatics rebelled,” said Dustin.
Mike’s nausea turned to disgust. “They’re in charge now?” That would mean Azariah was the new Grand Master.
“Not exactly,” said Dustin, throwing open the door. “Go on in.”
Mike steeled himself for anything as he strode into the temple, but he was not, absolutely not, prepared for the person waiting for him inside. He cried out when he saw him and stopped dead in his tracks.
Lucas Sinclair looked healthy and radiant as ever. He wore the garb he’d always worn as a Brother of Gorm, including the chainmail armor he must have been buried in. His head was firmly attached, with no signs or scars of Mike’s brutal handiwork. His magic sword was strapped to his side. And there was something new: he wore a crown.
Mike stood looking at his friend, not daring to approach any further. Dustin stayed by the door. Flanking both sides of Lucas in front of the altar were the remaining Brothers, all seven of them: Azariah, Moser, Druis, Coval, Kryazen, and two that Mike didn’t recognize. Their swords were drawn and their eyes rained judgment.
“Lucas,” Mike began, his eyes spilling tears. “I’m sorry…” I’d do anything to take it back… “I’m sorry!” He put his face in his hands and cried then, as he had cried in their room four nights ago – the rattling cry of self-loathing and unendurable shame.
He sobbed and sobbed until his hands were being gently pried away. He looked up. Through waterfalls he made out Lucas, saying things that weren’t right. Forgiving Mike as he didn’t deserve. Embracing him, announcing the badness between them past. Mike clung to his friend, unable to accept the absolution. They stood like that until he finally did.
“I don’t understand,” said Mike, wiping his eyes. “You… Kanadius…?” What’s that crown you’re wearing? And why did it look familiar?
“I’ll explain everything,” said Lucas. He turned to the Brothers. “Give us the room. I have a lot to say to Mike in private. And Dustin.”
Azariah protested: “Your Grace! Are you sure about that?” The Brothers looked uneasy with leaving Lucas alone.
“Yes, I’m sure,” said Lucas. “I’ll be fine. Thank you all – for everything you’ve done.”
The Brothers sheathed their swords, bowed low, and left the temple in single file.
Mike’s mind was reeling. Your Grace?
Dustin closed the door when they left and joined Mike and Lucas. “Well, friends. Here we are. The priest who won’t die, the maiden who can’t die, and the king who keeps dying.”
“What does that make Will?” asked Lucas.
“Oh, he’s the kid who may as well be dying,” said Dustin.
Mike was too stunned for humor. “The Brothers made you king, Lucas? What do the other cults say about that?”
“The Usamigarans are giving me their support,” said Lucas. “It’s your tribe I’m worried about, Mike. In a few minutes we may get some fireworks on that front.”
“I’m lost,” said Mike.
“Dustin,” said Lucas.
Dustin told the story. Lucas’s grave had been kept secret in the Brotherhood, so that the body couldn’t be stolen and resurrected. Kanadius firmly believed that Lucas had fulfilled his role as the Chosen. Other Brothers, led by fanatics Azariah and Moser, began to take a different point of view – that while resurrection was indeed an abomination, Lucas, as the incarnation of Gorm, wasn’t bound by the taboo. Now, with the Zargonite alliance in shambles, they needed their deity back. The Lost City was about to fall. Kanadius wouldn’t budge. Last night four Brothers revolted: Azariah, Moser, Krayzen (a former militant), and Roose (one of the newbies). They killed Kanadius, dug up Lucas’s grave, and this morning summoned Demetrius to their temple to resurrect Lucas.
“Demetrius didn’t need to be asked twice,” said Dustin. “I was telling him to do it. I mean, I always hated Azariah and Moser – and Hyme, before you killed him, Mike – but I wanted Lucas back.”
“Everyone’s a fanatic now,” said Lucas. “Not just the four who rebelled. All seven of them. And I’m sure as hell not in a position to judge.”
“What made them think you can save the city?” asked Mike.
Lucas laughed. “Nothing but stupid blind faith.”
“Or not so stupid,” said Dustin. “Lucas may not be Gorm, but he does have a special role cut out for him. Even if the Brothers understood jack shit about it.”
“Which is?” asked Mike.
“When Demetrius raised me,” said Lucas, “I sat up on that altar with another sign. Another tattoo.” He held up his left palm. There was an imprint of a black crown, looking exactly like the one he was wearing.
“I’ve seen that crown before,” said Mike.
“It was Queen Zenobia’s,” said Dustin. “When I vaporized that bitch, it fell to the floor in the crypt. Remember, Mike, you warned us not to touch it.”
“Bad advice,” said Lucas. “We should have ignored you. I sent the Brothers down to retrieve the crown as soon as we saw the tattoo.” He paused. “And I sent Demetrius and Shira to get something else, when the Brothers came back.”
“When they came back, they crowned Lucas King of Cynidicea,” said Dustin.
“With a queen’s crown?” asked Mike.
“The crown is the whole key to my undead/resurrected nature,” said Lucas. “If someone is killed by Zenobia’s touch, and then resurrected, that person can wear her crown and command undead.”
“What?” said Mike. “How do you know that?”
“I just, like, saw it, or understood it, when I put the crown on,” said Lucas. “I know I’m not wrong.”
“How many undead are we talking?”
“Hundreds,” said Lucas. “A whole army. No undead will harm someone who was killed by Zenobia and wears her crown.”
“Both parts are essential,” said Dustin. “That’s why the Isle recognized Lucas as already undead and didn’t turn him into a zoombie. The way it turned the others who went ashore. Because he had died from Zenobia’s touch. But the zoombies didn’t recognize him as one of their own. Because he needed the crown.”
“Now that I have it,” said Lucas, “I can summon every zoombie linked to that Isle and they’ll do as I say. We have an army. To stop the Yshians.”
Mike couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “That’s incredible.” But how many zoombies remained in the nexus world bridged by Vark’s Ring? “Will killed hundreds of those zoombies.” At least three hundred, maybe closer to four.
“There are hundreds more,” said Lucas. “Remember our history lessons? All the ash that was put on that island?”
Mike remembered his studies in the Brotherhood: up until the eighth century AC, the Isle had been used as a dumping ground for the ashes of the dead. Then, in 773 AC, Vark’s Ring became what it was, and anyone who went to the Isle was killed. Something mysterious had happened. Whatever it was, the ash of every corpse had been raised into a zoombie. That was over seven hundred years worth of dead, transformed into undead.
Eat that, you Yshian shits.
If Lucas could summon hordes of zoombies, they had more than a fighting chance. One zoombie was as deadly as any jihadist, if not more so.
“Well, the crown looks pretty unisex anyway,” said Mike.
“That works for another reason too,” said Lucas. “One that should be arriving any moment.”
Dustin went to the door and listened. “Yeah, I think I hear the revolving passage.” He looked at Lucas. “They’re coming.”
“Who’s coming?” asked Mike.
Lucas went to the altar against the far wall and made sure the candles had enough stick left. He looked inside a box sitting on the altar and then returned to the center of the room.
“Lucas, who’s -”
There was commotion outside the temple door. Dustin opened it, looked back at Lucas, and nodded.
Mike tried seeing out into the hallway, but he could only see a few of the Brothers, guarding the doorway.
“Let them all in,” said Lucas.
Dustin opened the door for everyone outside. The Brothers walked back in and assumed their positions in a protective arc in front of Lucas. Mike and Dustin stepped to the side a bit as the newcomers entered. Mike’s bowels turned to liquid. It was Pandora and the Maidens, led by Demetrius’s colleague, the Usamigaran priestess Shira.
For a Maiden to step inside the Temple of Gorm was a capital offense.
Shira joined Dustin and Mike at the side of the room, as Pandora and her Maidens filed in quietly. The air was brutally tense. The Maidens gripped the hilts of their swords, ready to draw for any reason. All of them were present except Jilanka, who was down in the city.
Dustin leaned over to whisper. “Shira already told them about Lucas.”
Mike nodded. I’ll bet she did. Pandora would have never agreed to an audience on Brotherhood soil if Kanadius were in charge.
“Thank you for coming, Pandora,” said Lucas.
Madarua’s Champion looked like the wrath of heaven come down. “I’ll say this to start with. Kanadius looks more handsome out there on the wall than he ever did attached to his body. For that I applaud your Brothers. But I assure you, Grand Master, I am not a feeble old man, and if you try -”
“You will address King Lucas as His Grace!” shouted Azariah.
Swords flashed in the air. Every Maiden had drawn, except Pandora. The Brothers responded in kind. Pandora glared at Azariah contemptuously.
“Brothers, stand down!” Lucas sounded like a king right then, and Mike felt a surge of pride as the Brothers immediately obeyed the man they had crowned. His friend was not only commanding like a monarch, he was being regally diplomatic, by not taking umbrage at his guests who had drawn first.
Lucas looked at Pandora apologetically. “Please forgive Azariah. His loyalty got the better of him. And please feel welcome here. I didn’t invite you here to provoke or entrap you. I have a proposal, which you may accept or reject, with no fear of retaliation either way.”
Pandora frowned, as if not expecting this. She came expecting battle. She hates the Brothers so much she thought they wanted the satisfaction of killing all the Maidens before the invasion killed everyone. She knew nothing about Lucas Sinclair. He didn’t burn bridges, he built them.
“For centuries the three cults have been at each others’ throats,” said Lucas. “Barely tolerating each other, and for no reason other than to serve as a holding action against the Zargonites. If you ask me, that’s a shitty place to be for people who are supposed to get along.”
“There are reasons why we’ve been ‘at each others’ throats’,” said Pandora. “You’ve been in this world long enough to know them, and you’re smart enough not to dismiss them.”
“Of course,” said Lucas. “And I don’t intend to rehash all those reasons. I’m confident in saying that all three cults have their strengths and prejudices – and I’m as guilty of prejudice as any other. Our differences in opinion can’t be changed overnight, and a lot of that difference should probably not be changed. I mean, look: the cults of Gorm, Madarua, and Usamigaras used to get along fine with all their differences. I propose that we reattain that unity in diversity. Shira has told you that I can summon an army of undead from the Isle, and lead them into battle against the Yshian invaders. We have a chance at living another day, and if that happens, it could mean more Yshians coming after us. We can’t go on broken and fragmented. We need the kingdom of Cynidicea back – even if it stays underground. I’m asking you to let me be your king.” He paused. “And I’m asking you, Pandora, to be my queen.”
The Maidens hissed in breath. Mike was taken completely by surprise. The proposal sounded gracious, but it was offensive from the Madaruan point of view.
Pandora’s eyes narrowed. “You have balls, Brother, I’ll give you that. Perhaps a black sac has more juice than a white man’s. But I’ll cut that sac off before you ever make me your bitch.”
“I’m not asking you to be that,” said Lucas. “I’m asking you to reign with me as an equal. That you and I be co-rulers. You having just as much power and authority as me.”
Now it wasn’t only Pandora and her Maidens who were stunned. The Brothers gasped and looked shocked. Clearly Lucas hadn’t told them about this part of the deal.
Mike kept a straight face but inside he was laughing. Lucas was shrewd. By withholding his egalitarian intentions from his own Brothers, he had gained a ton of credibility in Pandora’s eyes. Had they reacted not at all to the generous offer, Pandora would have expected some hidden snare that Lucas and the Brothers were keeping from her. This way, she saw that Lucas was being completely transparent.
Lucas walked to the altar and lifted the box he had checked earlier. He reached inside and produced another crown. All eyes were on him as he carried the crown and stood before Pandora.
“This is King Alexander’s crown,” he said. “Demetrius and Shira got it from Alexander’s crypt, after the Brothers retrieved Zenobia’s. The queen’s crown is mine by necessity. Pandora, will you wear the king’s, and share the rule of Cynidicea with me as an equal?”
Pandora gaped. “You want my answer right now?” she demanded.
“If you need time, then by all means,” said Lucas. “But… time is something we’re rather short on.”
“I don’t need time,” she said curtly. “Indecision makes a lousy leader. You’ll have my answer now.” The temple held its breath. Mike honestly had no idea what she would say.
She faced Lucas squarely. “The histories say that Alexander and Zenobia were co-rulers in practice if not name. There’s precedent there. But let’s hope we do better than they did – and better for Cynidicea. I accept your proposal. And I will hold you to your vow of co-rulership.”
Lucas smiled and the room relaxed; everyone’s relief was palpable. Even the zealots on both sides – Azariah and Moser from the Brothers, Bray and Esranet from the Maidens – looked moved.
Shira came up to stand next to Lucas and Pandora, as the Brothers left Lucas’s side and joined the Maidens in front of him. Everyone in the hall faced their new king and queen. Lucas handed Alexander’s crown to Shira, and the priestess nodded to Pandora. The Champion knelt and Shira placed the crown on her head. As Pandora rose, Shira stepped back to the side and heralded the new monarchs:
“Between the years 766 and 127 before the first Thyatian emperor’s crowning, sixteen monarchs ruled Cynidicea. Now, almost twelve centuries later, the kingdom is come again! Hail Lucas Sinclair of the Brotherhood! May his thunder roar! Hail Pandora Shave of the Maidens! May her footsteps shake the earth!”
Everyone shouted: “Hail, King Lucas! Hail, Queen Pandora!”
“The seventeenth reign will be a co-reign of equals, as Brothers and Maidens work to celebrate their differences, and Magi are allowed their freedoms. Let the reign begin!”
“Hail, King Lucas! Hail, Queen Pandora!”
Mike’s eyes watered. You deserve this, Lucas.
There were no speeches from the king or queen. None were necessary. And as the ceremony ended, Mike stood in awe of Lucas Sinclair who was everything unholy: a commander of the dead, who wasn’t undead and yet was; a king who wore a queen’s crown, promising a redemption that could undermine the cult he’d sworn to uphold. Mike wanted Lucas to himself desperately – after all this time and what he’d done to him – but his friend was already deliberating with his queen, and surrounded by subjects wanting to bend his ear. The price of kingship. He wears it well.
Next Chapter: Feed Me
(Previous Chapter: Torn Asunder)