The 50th Anniversary of the Nashua Public Library

This year the Nashua Public Library will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the months of November and December. The celebration will include an exhibit of library artifacts and a slideshow of photographs in the gallery, a banner and a special anniversary edition library card, and also special displays of material from the collection that were released in 1971 — books, films, music, TV series, and events. The library’s actual anniversary is September 26 (when the dedication ceremony took place), so technically the celebration should already be under way. So I’m doing my own personal homage to the library and the year 1971. Here’s looking back at what was happening that year: books that would leave their mark, like The Exorcist; rock ‘n roll masterpieces like Zeppelin IV; the debut of All in the Family and unprecedented political incorrectness. It turns out that 1971 was a critical year in many ways — it started the ’70s in the way 1983 started the ’80s — an important year (though I wasn’t old enough to appreciate most of it) and suitable moment to open a town library. There were shifts in the cultural milieu that would have lasting impact, and here are some of the highlights.

1. The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. It started with the book in ’71, even if the film pushed it into infamy two years later. Not great literature by any means (unlike the film, which was a cinematic masterpiece), but Blatty presented demonic possession like no one has done since, and never scarier.

2. All in the Family, by Normal Lear. The best TV sitcom of all time hit its peak in ’73-’74 (the excellent third and fourth seasons), but it began on that fateful January in 1971 (you can watch the full premiere here), when Archie and Mike screamed at each other about racism over a Sunday brunch. The show would keep going to the tail end of the ’70s.

3. The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. The 50th anniversary for this one has already been widely celebrated. It was a book ahead of its time, making its urgent plea for preservation and a clean environment, showing how species disappear when food runs out or pollution is left unchecked.

4. Led Zeppelin IV, by Led Zeppelin. Yeah, this one. The opening “Black Dog”, the medieval “Battle of Evermore” (my favorite), the epic “Stairway to Heaven”,  the ballad “Going to California”, and everything else… hard to believe this masterpiece has 50 years under its belt.

5. Harold and Maude, by Hal Ashby. A morbid love affair between a suicidal teen and a 79-year old woman was widely panned at the time of its release, but today it’s much more appreciated it deserves. One of the darkest comedies ever made, and a fitting start to the ’70s era of creative cinema.

6. The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin. In the middle of writing the Earthsea Trilogy, Le Guin released this sci-fic tale of a world racked by violence and environmental catastrophe. One man’s dreams controls the fate of humanity, and a psychiatrist manipulates those dreams for his own purposes. I’m reading this now and lamenting that we don’t have writers like this anymore.

7. Hell House, by Richard Matheson. Stephen King calls it the best haunted house story of all time. Perhaps. It’s about two previous expeditions to the awful house that ended up with the investigators killed or going insane, and now a new investigation is under way.

8. The Monster at the End of this Book, by Jon Stone. It may sound strange, but this book terrified me as a kid. My mother got for me about three years after publication. Hysterical images like these petrified the shit out of me and kept me awake at night. I dreaded the monster at the end, even knowing it was just Grover. The things that scare little kids.

9. The French Connection, by William Friedkin. Known for the infamous car chase that could have gotten people killed (it was shot illegally without Friedkin getting anyone’s permission, or without even closing off the streets), the film was a landmark shot in the “induced documentary” style that put Friedkin on the map.

10. Nursery Cryme, by Genesis. Prog rock excellence from Genesis in their glory days. In the epic “Musical Box” a girl knocks her boy cousin’s head off with a croquet mallet, and his spirit returns to lust for her and assault her. In “The Fountain of Salmacis” Hermaphroditus is seduced by the nymph Salmacis and becomes fused with her. Great imagination on display here.

11. The Electric Company, by Paul Dooley. Sesame Street (launched in ’69) had pride of place when I was growing up, but The Electric Company (’71-’77) was my favorite and the reason I became a fan of Spider-Man. Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader was pretty cool too. This is his first appearance on the show.

12. Dragonquest, by Anne McCaffrey. Arguably the best of The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the second book involves complex storylines. In the first book Lessa traveled back in time centuries in order to bring an army forward. In this one F’nor takes on an even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread forever.

13. The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. Like The Exorcist, the book would be made into a successful 1973 film. It was also awarded on its strength as a novel, receiving the Best Novel Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. it’s about the assassination attempt of Charles De Gaulle, and it holds up well today.

14. A Clockwork Orange, by Stanley Kubrick. Kubric went for the jugular in adapting the 1962 novel, depicting a miserable journey through a world of decaying cities, psycho adolescents, and nightmare technologies of rehabilitative punishment. Viewers were stunned. Welcome to the ’70s.

15. The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, by Robert Foster. Before the age of the internet and Tolkien webpages, this was my go-to book for Tolkien lore (which I acquired, I think, in either ’79 or ’80). It was as complete as I could imagine a resource for Tolkien’s world. How little I knew back then.

16. Who’s Next, by The Who. A song like “Baba O’Riley” comes along once in a blue moon, and an album like Who’s Next? even more infrequently. I’ve never been a Who fan, but I do love this album, and I could play “Baba O’Riley” any day of the week.

 

As for events, in 1971…

17. The digital age began. We don’t tend to associate the early ’70s with that, but January 1971 is when the microprocessor was invented.

18. The voting age was lowered to 18. The 2th Amendment was finally ratified, after the drafting age had been lowered to 18 during World War II. The drinking age, of course, still needs to be lowered to 18 (if not abolished altogether).

19. Charles Manson was executed. He and three of his darlings got the death penalty.

20. Disney World opened. I’ve still never been and probably will never make it.

All was not rosy, however, in 1971. Probably the worst thing that happened was…

21. The gold standard was abandoned. Nixon announced that the United States would no longer convert dollars to gold at a fixed value, thus completely abandoning the gold standard. From 1971 onwards productivity increased as wages flatlined; Gross Domestic Product surged but the shares going to workers plummeted; house prices skyrocketed; hyperinflation increased; currencies crashed. The personal savings rate went down the toilet; incarceration rates went up by a factor of five; divorce rates shot up too, and the number of people in their late 20s living with their parents increased; the number of lawyers quadrupled.

Graphically, this is what happened in 1971, thanks to Nixon’s abandoning the gold standard (click to enlarge). The graphs come from the WTF Happened in 1971? website.

No denying that 1971 is a year to pay homage to, in more ways than one. Happy anniversary, Nashua Public Library!

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 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)

The Lost City: Everything Unholy

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:

                             Everything Unholy

 

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.

Mike…

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.”

Mike nodded.

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?”

“Yes.”

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.

“Mike?”

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.

Feed me.

 

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.”

“Demetrius?”

“No, Dustin. You need to come with me, Mike.”

“Why? Where?”

“You’ll see.”

“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.

Oh God.

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.

Lucas!

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)

The Lost City: Torn Asunder

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 Fourteen:

                               Torn Asunder

 

It was a fortress of spectacular horror and terrible beauty. Will felt the contradictions as he stood before the front gate for his second time. The other contradiction was that he was standing before this gate for his second time. He was a Magi. Only Zargonites were allowed here. Anyone else who entered was a sacrifice, slave, or intruder, and never came out again. William Byers was making history tonight.

He was the first guest of honor in the Temple of Zargon.

Black fire, protect me from the jaws of Hell.

Hell was an E-shaped structure made of obsidian rock. The gate was at the middle arm of the E, and as he stood waiting for the guards to open it, he looked up at the tower – the wide bastion called Zargon’s Rise. The Rise was also obsidian, studded with glittering crimson, and windows that blazed in the night with hypnotic torch fire.

It is beautiful. What happens inside is not. Within these walls, the priests of Zargon conducted rites no child should be aware of, let alone exposed to. Will was a child in size and age, but he’d lost the innocence of ages. He had the health of an invalid, the physical limitations of an old man, and the knowledge of a god. All courtesy of the Eye.

Four days ago he had come here with Kanadius and Pandora. They’d made history too; they’d left the temple alive. Risked having their hearts ripped out, for an audience with a sworn arch-enemy, and to make a pact with him that he was just as likely to break. If Will did anything to displease Hazor over the next twenty hours, there would be no pact.

It was a tall order. Even with his omniscience, Will wasn’t sure exactly what Hazor wanted from him tonight. He was supposed to attend the fifth-night ceremonies. To watch, query, and appreciate the most hideous rites of the week. To be in awe of Zargon the Devourer. All of this in a gesture of good will, for which in return, Hazor would marshal his forces against the Yshian invaders. The jihadists were due in seven days.

That was the deal: to honor the Zargonites and their inhumane practices. And it had to be Will, not Kanadius or Pandora. Hazor wanted to host the Eye child. Demetrius didn’t like it, but Will assured him of his protection. Anyone who tried to harm Will Byers got incinerated by black flame. The Eye did have its benefits.

It also had a temper that could ruin everything.

He wasn’t worried about the ceremonies upsetting him. Since receiving the Eye, he’d seen the torture that went on in this temple. But he did worry about being triggered. Hours of exposure to these inhumane rites might provoke the rage. The death scream. If that happened – if he let loose in this temple – then it was all over. The Yshians had won in advance.

The High Priest of Zargon was trigger material, being certifiably insane. Hazor brooded over imagined slights and exploded on a dime. Will would be walking on egg shells every second he was by the cleric’s side. That was unacceptable.

To this end, Will had procured from Demetrius a grade-4 sedative mushroom, the mushroom called fade. It was a hard sedative, but it kept the drug user wide awake with enhanced senses – calm and stoned, with no stress or anxiety, yet also fully alert. Moreover, his body would be rejuvenated as if sleeping while on the fade drug, even when he moved about or engaged in discussion.

It was a caffeine and sleeping pill rolled into one.

He had taken the fade before arriving at the temple. The effects took ten to forty minutes to kick in, and would last between six to fifteen hours. More than enough to get him through the evening ceremonies. It was five o’clock now. The rites started at six and went to one in the morning. Will would stay the night and depart the temple tomorrow after sharing breakfast with Hazor. His room had better be nice. Hazor had promised him the best suite in the Rise. There would be a late supper in between ceremonies at nine, but Will seriously doubted he’d have any appetite. He prayed that wouldn’t offend his host.

Green shroom, ward me from priestly wrath.

He hadn’t bothered mixing the drug to make a combo, because he was already an addict. He’d brought a supply of healing mushrooms, and he’d probably need to pop his evening one before the rites started. The pain in his head was already building claws.

The gate finally opened and a pair of guards came out. They wore gold horned masks, with tentacles coming out the sides and from under the chins. Will removed his silver mask of the cherub, so they could see who he was. They nodded and waved him through, and then began closing the gate. He hobbled like an old man into the wide room carved in smooth curves, with a vaulted ceiling more than twenty-five feet overhead. This was where Hazor had received them four days ago. The high priest had turned the room into a temporary audience hall – the first time an audience had ever been granted in this temple. Will, Kanadius, and Pandora had gone no farther than this room. Will would be going much farther this evening.

At the other side he came to a set of double doors inscribed with the face of Zargon. A face of oozing wounds and gross tumors, with a long horn protruding from his head, and a singular eye that bulged like that of a Cyclops. That eye made Will feel unnervingly at home, as if he were some lost cousin of the Cthulhu-like deity.

Do I knock? Or just open them? He looked over his shoulder back at the two guards. They stood by the gate ignoring him, and he knew better than to ask them for help.

He was about to probe the door with his omniscience, when the face spoke, demanding his name. A magic mouth spell.

“Will Byers,” he answered.

“Whom do you serve?” The voice was guttural and wet, as if spoken through a wall of mud.

Will braced himself. “Usamigaras.”

The face threw up an obscene laugh. “Filthy sneak.” The doors parted and swung slowly inwards.

Then, with his Eye, he saw it: if the door hadn’t identified him as the honored guest, the mouth would have drenched him with a stream of acid. As if designed by Mike himself. The D&D module hadn’t provided any details for the Temple of Zargon. But so far, the real thing was a dungeon purely out of Mike Wheeler’s sick imagination.

He walked through the open doorway, and in the next chamber gasped when he looked around. The walls were painted with scenes so lurid they looked like pornographic photographs from his home world. Sacrifice, rape, sacrifice, torture, sacrifice, bloodbaths. He stopped in the middle of the room and stared, turning himself slowly around to take in the full horror. He felt strangely tranquil at the sight of these barbarisms, and realized the fade drug was kicking in. He turned some more, savoring the sedation while also feeling sharply aware. Yes. He might just get through tonight without vomiting or going crazy.

“Does it eat at you?”

He turned around. A priest stood by an archway opposite the double doors. It was Hazor. The high priest. He was unmasked and staring down at Will intently.

“What?” asked Will, tearing his gaze from the obscene wall imagery. “Oh. Not really. I’m sort of used to this art by now.” Which was a lie. Nothing he had seen in any area of the pyramid or the underground city approached the level of depravity splashed across these walls.

“I meant the Eye.” The priest had an oily smile. “Your Eye, underneath that mask. Which you may remove, if you wish. I imagine it takes its toll on the body. The Eye, that is.”

“Oh,” said Will, taking off his mask reluctantly, and putting it inside his robe. He was self-conscious about his monstrous look. “My Eye… it reminds me of Zargon’s eye. But Zargon’s power is in his horn.”

“Hmm. Do you know everything about the Devourer?”

“Not everything,” said Will evasively.

“He devours everyone and all,” said Hazor.

“Even his worshipers?” asked Will.

“Especially his worshipers,” said Hazor. “In the Centennial Feed of 449 AC, Zargon feasted in the streets on scores of citizens. He saved his high priest for last; a scrumptious desert. In the Feed of 655, he devoured almost twenty of his priests. In the Feed of 952, he turned a dozen of his priests into Whelps.”

Thanks to his omniscience, Will already knew what Whelps were. Anyone unfortunate to be spat on or bitten by Zargon underwent a hideous transformation process that turned them into puddles of ooze that became mindless killing monsters. These Whelps then spread the same transforming disease with their own saliva and bites.

But Will didn’t know about the particular centennial feedings that Hazor was talking about. He looked into the past with his Eye and saw that all of that was true. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why would a god kill his own priests – especially his highest priest?”

“How can we preach that lives don’t matter unless we lead by example?” asked Hazor.

“So if I want to kill you now, you’ll let me?” asked Will, feeling empowered by the fade drug. He gauged the question wasn’t too provocative, given the context of their discussion. His Eye was also telling him that Hazor actually liked him. And Hazor hated everyone, including himself.

Hazor looked disappointed. “If that’s your idea of scoring a zinger, don’t become a philosopher.”

Will accepted the rebuke. “What would you like me to do this evening?”

“As we agreed upon, when you were here with the coot and the slut.”

“You want me to attend the ceremonies with you.” To watch, query, and appreciate.

“The fifth-night ceremonies. Yes. The most important rites of the week.”

Meaning the most obscene rites of the week. “Am I expected to do anything special? I told you before, I won’t hurt or kill anyone.”

“You won’t have to get your hands dirty,” said Hazor contemptuously. “Only your mind. But on that level I expect your full participation. Anything less, and you and your slugs are on your own against the Yshians.”

Lovely. But he’d committed himself to this course of action. The old cults needed the Zargonites.

The fighting force that Hazor could muster wasn’t enough to match the Yshian thousand, but it was enough to give the Lost City a chance, supplemented by a certain drug. The city had a total of about 1200 citizens: 1000 adults and 200 youths below age 18. Of the 1000 adults, 25 were priests and 36 were warriors from the Temple of Zargon. From the citizenry, 385 males and 46 females were able-bodied and would be drafted to fight against the jihadists. There were also a total of 60 goblins and 56 hobgoblins who could be called on from the caves. That brought the total Zargonite fighting force to 608.

The old cults hardly added much to add to this number – a total of 68. That meant a total of 676 Cynidiceans against 1000 invading jihadists. But it wasn’t even that good. The citizens being drafted (the 385 males and 46 females) were inexperienced fighters, not to mention mushroom addicts. They would be cut down in no time at all – if not for another drug that Hazor would be giving them: the berserker mushrooms. The Zargonite temple warriors would be taking berserker shrooms as well. That would give them all a fighting chance.

Also, what the Yshians had in numbers, the Cynidiceans would make up for in spell power. All the cults had priests and the Usamigarans had mages. Then too there was the element of entrapment: the Yshians didn’t know the Cynidiceans would be prepared for them. They knew nothing of the Eye of Gaius and how Will knew their invasion was coming. All things considered, it would probably be about an even match.

For the city’s survival, Will would choke down this night and call it righteous. He’d stroke a priest’s ego and applaud the show. Fade and pain killers – and a shrewd omniscience – would get him through rites and sights that would scar any other kid for life.

“Very well, Hazor,” he said. “You have my attention. Lead the way.”

 

By midnight he was ready to turn in. There was still another hour, but he was past his bedtime – and way past his tolerance for death and torture. Hazor would understand. And to hell with him if he doesn’t.

They sat next to each other up on the chancel. The high host and his magi guest. Below them, the worship hall was the pit of Hell itself: a vast eighty by sixty foot area where the priests of Zargon tortured and killed people, and the temple warriors came in shifts to revel in the agony. Up on the chancel, the sacrificial altar was stained with blood going back centuries. Fresh blood was splashed everywhere, on the block and floor. If Will hadn’t already lost his innocence, he would have killed himself hours ago from the things he’d been made to watch. And from Hazor’s fits of giggling.

They were the only two in the hall not wearing masks. The six priests performing the sacrifices wore the Zargonite standard: gold with the horn protruding from the head, and tentacles coming out the sides and below the chins. Will had requested to sit through the rites maskless, and Hazor had accommodated him by doing likewise.

He’d sit through one more. One more, and that was it. He was running out of questions to ask anyway. There were only so many ways to feign philosophical interest over how this body was broken, how this blood was shed, or how this woman’s rape differed from that man’s or this child’s before all their lives were snuffed out.

Next to him, Hazor clapped his hand.

Down below, the next round began. The priests had finished dragging away the corpses of two women who had been made to carve each other to pieces on the altar (with false promises of freedom for the one who didn’t pass out first), and now returned with a naked elderly man. They carried him up the stairs of the chancel and strapped him on his back to the altar; then they clamped him in with restraints. The man begged for mercy in a shrine of deaf ears and thirsty eyes. Temple warriors filled the hall below, relishing the victim’s terror.

Another priest brought in a cage containing four rats. He ascended the chancel and placed the cage on top of the man’s abdomen, and slid out the false bottom so that the rats scampered within the cage over the man’s stomach. The man moaned in horror.

Hazor looked over at Will. “Can you guess what’s next?”

Thankfully the fade drug was still working. Nothing could break Will’s calm. Sheer fatigue was making him less alert though; more tired. “I’d guess the priest is going to lift up the cage, so the rats can… I don’t know, eat the man’s face?” No, that’s not right. The rats would just leap off the altar and run away. Unlike many of the other rites he’d sat through tonight, Will had never seen a rat ritual in his visions.

The high priest chuckled. “Watch closely.”

Three of the priests had tongs carrying red-hot burning coals. They applied the coals to the metal cage frame. Will frowned, still unclear as to the cage’s purpose. Then the cage became slowly heated; unbearably so for the rats. They panicked and scurried faster across the man’s stomach. The cage grew hotter. The rats turned desperate, and started burrowing through the only soft surface available: the man’s stomach.

Jesus Christ.

Will’s own stomach contracted, despite himself. The sheer nastiness of this rite took him by surprise. Beside him, Hazor was giggling uncontrollably.

It wasn’t long before the victim was wailing in agony. With their claws and teeth, the rats were gnawing deep into his bowels, trying vainly to escape the heat of the cage. It went on for a long time – too long – until the rats were deep inside the man. Will watched as he quickly died from that point, and the priests got busy cleaning up the mess.

Hazor was enjoying himself long after it ended. “It’s possibly my favorite,” he said. “I always save it for the last hour.” He looked at Will. “Now, what are your questions?”

Will had frankly had it with this question-and-answer game, and treating torture like an analytical exercise. He’d been very gracious for the past six hours – sitting through sacrifice, rape, sacrifice, torture, sacrifice, bloodbaths – all the while plying his host with dutiful questions. He’d almost even convinced himself that Zargonite barbarisms served the cosmos in an oblique way; bettered it, somehow, through its purity of sadism; its honest nihilism. But this rat torture – this late in the game – rubbed him real wrong.

“I don’t have any more questions,” said Will. “That was disgusting and despicable.”

The high priest froze; didn’t move at all. He looked like a child whose favorite toy had been broken. Then his face twisted angrily.

Will cursed himself. Undo that, you fool, if you want to save this city.

“I’m sorry, Hazor,” he said. “I didn’t mean to offend. It wasn’t disgusting. It was… inspiring, like everything else I’ve seen tonight. But I can’t keep up anymore. I’m still a kid, even with the Eye… it’s late and I’m tired. Would you mind… could I go to bed now?” God, you sound lame. If the Eye didn’t protect you with black fire, rats would be eating into your bowels right now.

Hazor’s face was still purple with rage. On impulse, Will reached out and touched his shoulder, apologizing again. That seemed to reach the high priest. He simmered down and flashed his oily smile.

“Of course, Will. It is late, and you’ve been a fine guest. The Eye has done wonders for your enlightenment.” He put his hand on Will’s thigh. “You know, some of the legends say that Gaius served the Devourer. I take those legends seriously. Perhaps this temple is your real home.” He caressed Will’s thigh with his sweaty palm. Then he clutched Will’s groin.

Will reacted violently and leaped from his chair. He stepped away; out of Hazor’s reach. He was breathing heavily, even through the fade drug; angry at being touched like that. “Sorry,” he said, not sorry at all. “Can I… just go to bed now?”

Hazor’s eyes glinted with malevolence. “By all means. My acolyte will take you to your suite. It’s the best one in the Rise – aside from mine of course. Perhaps I’ll visit you later and join you in bed.” He laughed when he saw Will’s expression. “Then again, maybe not. Sleep well. You will rise early and we will have breakfast together, before you return to the pyramid.” He turned and snapped his fingers.

From a corner of the hall stepped a masked acolyte. He must have been standing in the shadows for the past six hours. He beckoned Will to follow him. Will bowed low to Hazor, wanting to punch the man’s face, and then left the hall.

As he followed the acolyte to the Rise, he began burning with fury over being touched. The bird man swam into his vision. He hadn’t thought of the bird man in a long time. He began to sweat and feel sick. When the acolyte went up a flight of stairs, Will fell to his knees and vomited. He saw the bird man’s face, then Hazor’s. The two blended into one.

It would have been worse without the fade drug, but it was still a bad spell. Hazor had triggered him. Not the Eye – that would have been catastrophic. But Will didn’t need this right now. Get a hold of yourself, Byers. He closed his right eye and breathed deeply, down on all fours.

He heard tittering ahead. It was the acolyte. He’d come back for Will and was laughing at him. Waiting for him to get up. Will forced himself to stand and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He needed a glass of water. Some of his late supper was on the floor. He’d managed to eat more than he expected. He and Hazor had feasted on steak that the high priest revealed only afterwards was human: a teenager broken on the altar. Fade had kept it down. Trauma had just brought it back up.

“Is there a pitcher of water in my room?” he asked the acolyte.

The man laughed, spun a 180, and then went back up the flight of stairs.

Acid head. Like every other Cynidicean outside the old cults.

The stairwell took them up to Zargon’s Rise. Offensive imagery swirled around the walls: the usual fare of rape, sacrifice, and dismemberment. At the top the acolyte led him down a corridor to another stairwell that led to the floor of the priest suites. The special suite reserved for Will was at the end of a wide hall with black carpeting that muffled all sound. The entry to the suite was a set of double doors that slid apart, decorated with the image of a nude pregnant woman, staring wide-eyed. The acolyte stopped at the hallway turn and gestured for Will to go down into the suite.

“Thank you,” said Will. “Before you go, what if I need anything?” He wasn’t expecting a real answer.

The acolyte stared at Will through his mask. Then he reached inside Will’s robe and removed the cherub mask that Will had kept off throughout the night.

“Hey, what are you doing?”

The acolyte held up a finger to shush him, and then placed the silver mask gingerly on the floor. He pulled aside his robes and exposed himself, urinating on the mask. He pissed for a long time.

“For God’s sake,” said Will. “You know what, you get to keep that mask. It’s your tip for walking me here.” He left the acolyte and went down to his suite.

We’re relying on acid-head space-shots to defeat jihadists.

When he got to the double doors he gasped in horror. The image of the pregnant woman wasn’t an image, but real. She had been preserved somehow, embedded in the door panels – inside the surface along the split that divided the doors. Her corpse was in effect sealing the doors shut. To open them would mean sliding one right and one left, which would rip the body in half from head to groin. He probed the door with his omniscience, but the Eye wouldn’t penetrate this morbid contraption.

He looked back behind him. The acolyte was done relieving himself. He had left the cherub mask on the floor and was watching Will. The Eye showed the man’s facial expression under the mask. The man was elated; eager for Will to open the doors.

Will sighed in disgust, beyond caring at this point. After all the evil tonight he’d seen inflicted on the living, he wasn’t worried about desecrating the dead. He grabbed the door handles and slid them apart.

They opened with ease, and to Will’s great shock the woman came alive – if she had ever been dead. Her mouth began screaming as her body was torn asunder. She split into halves, and her unborn child was bisected inside her. The fetus wailed on both sides of the open doorway. Will was aghast, literally stunned out of his mind. He couldn’t fathom the depraved mind that had devised this door.

There was tittering behind him. He looked back and saw the acolyte giggling hysterically, just like Hazor. This was why he’d been invited here. To see the whole canvass of Zargonite sadism. To look on every bit of it and despair.

The woman screamed and begged to be killed. For her child to be killed. Will was getting angry again, despite the fade drug. He hurriedly grabbed both door panels and tried to slide them closed again, but they wouldn’t budge. He kept trying. The woman and her baby had been torn asunder but were still alive, feeling the prolonged pain of being ripped apart without dying from it. The doors still wouldn’t move. Will ran his hands over the surface, helplessly trying to reach the woman encased underneath.

As soon as he did that, the Eye showed everything. Whatever high-level magic protected the door from divination, physical touch dispelled it. And the truth was even worse than he thought. The pregnant woman hadn’t been put here recently. She’d been trapped inside this door for centuries killed over and over again every time someone entered or left the suite. When the doors opened, they stayed open for fifteen minutes, and the woman (and her conscious fetus) felt the pain of being torn in half and dying for fifteen minutes. When the doors automatically closed after that duration, the woman and her baby magically came back to life, only to wait for the next time the doors were opened.

It was possibly the most unbearably cruel punishment a human being had ever been made to endure. The woman – Phael was her name – had been killed like this at least a thousand times. Her son Efrum was a fetus, but thanks to the Zargonite enchantments, he had the cognitive capacity and speaking skills of a five-year old. Will could only imagine what Phael had done to earn this hell, when the Eye showed that too. Three hundred years ago, she had affronted the high priest of Zargon: managed to get him in a compromising position, and then castrate him. This was her eternal reward.

Phael. I’m sorry. I want to help.

To Will’s astonishment, Phael responded telepathically. So did Efrum. They were still physically screaming – to the acolyte’s delight – but anyone who touched the door surface could read their thoughts too. Their desperate appeals reached him, for some reason. He felt a righteous anger he hadn’t known in a while.

Phael: Destroy this evil. Please.

Will: How? How do I do that?

Efrum: Mom, help me!

Phael: I don’t know. Please. Find a way.

Will: This is deep magic. Beyond my Magi powers.

Phael: Please. Help us. We die long and hard every day.

Will: I wish I could –

Efrum: Mom! It’s ripping me, tearing me! Mom!

Will: – I wish I knew how… Wait… Mom? Is that you?

Phael: What are you doing?

Will: Are you… really here?

Phael: No… stop touching us… stop touching us!

Ephrum: Mom! It’s hurting me! Hurting, Mom! It’s hurting –

The Eye flared horribly inside Will’s head, feeling twice its size. It pulsed – no – throbbed – no – pounded – no – pushing, pushing, pushing him toward that inexorable purpose it was made for…

No!

He fought it. He really tried. But Efrum’s cries had opened a door that no amount of will could shut…

“MOM!” screamed Will.

His rage blew the doors apart. The panels exploded and the two halves of Phael and her fetus with them, showering Will with gore. Through the din of his death scream he heard faint echoes of their cries, as if their souls lingered, unable to acknowledge liberation or flee the place that had jailed them. Souls in need of comfort.

Will had none on hand. His face contorted like a demon’s. It was worse than the previous two times – on the Isle and in his chamber with Auriga – when he had retained at least a vestige of control. Now his wrath was indiscriminate; it wanted anyone and everything. Had Mike or Dustin been standing here, he would have torn them apart. Drug addiction had made him susceptible to the Eye’s worst.

He stood rigid, arms locked at his sides, hurling his fury through the blasted doorway. The suite that had been prepared for him became Hiroshima. The acolyte behind him had fled, disappearing around the corner. But Will didn’t need to see him; only to See him. His scream tore backwards down the corridor, and before the acolyte could reach the stairs, his head exploded. Helpless to the curse that throttled him, Will kept raging against an abomination done to a mother and her son.

The stairwells lurched. Cracks leaped through stone – in walls, floors, and ceilings. All around him, Zargon’s Rise began to crumble. With the Eye, Will saw priests and warriors throughout the tower. They had less than a minute for any final prayers.

When the Rise collapsed, Will fell with it, battered all the way down by rock and ruin. Black fire enveloped him, and he didn’t feel a thing.

And he didn’t stop screaming.

 

Next Chapter: Everything Unholy

(Previous Chapter: The Jihad of Sayid al-Naji)

The Lost City: The Jihad of Sayid al-Naji

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

                                The Lost City — Chapter Thirteen:

                    The Jihad of Sayid al-Naji

 

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

Jihadists.

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

Jihadists, no question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No wives?” asked Omar.

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

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

Mike swore under his breath, staying hidden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike tensed by the window.

“I am,” declared Faizan.

“Explain yourself,” barked Omar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He is inside the hut,” said Faizan.

“Bring him out,” ordered Omar.

“I will not do that,” said Faizan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faizan considered. “What about?”

“I do not answer to you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” said Mike.

“You worship a whore?”

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

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

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

“How many?”

“Maybe two hundred.”

“Liar,” said the mullah.

Mike flushed, wanting to disembowel the cleric.

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

“No one,” said Mike.

“Everyone is a god-worshiper?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said I don’t know,” lied Mike.

“We’re going to find them anyway.”

“I said there’s only one -”

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

“What?” said Mike, caught off guard.

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

“It’s… nothing. Just a birth defect.”

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

“I’m not a sorcerer,” said Mike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mullah and his warriors turned their camels and left.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He dares insult me!” Malik was livid.

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

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

Malik scowled. Then he stalked outside to finish chores.

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

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

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

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

Mike sat, simmering.

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

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

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

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

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

“Should I have killed them?” asked Mike.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” said Mike.

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

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

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

 

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

“Malik, I’m sorry for -”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” said Mike.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Mike whirled on her. “Are you insane?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need to go back, Mike.”

“I can’t.”

“You’re hiding here.”

“Areesha, I love you,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Next Chapter: Torn Asunder

(Previous Chapter: Warriors of the Eternal Truth)

The Lost City: Warriors of the Eternal Truth

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

                                     The Lost City — Chapter Twelve:

                   Warriors of the Eternal Truth

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom! No -!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Will Byers was a drug addict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Raen?” demanded Kanadius.

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

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

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

“So you say,” retorted the Grand Master.

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

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

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

They stared at him, incredulous.

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

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

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

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

That silenced the table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kanadius shrugged. “Names change. Who cares?”

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

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

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

“Nor I,” said Kanadius.

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

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

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

The gist of Will’s spiel went as follows:

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

Until now, that is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” asked Demetrius.

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

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

Breathe deep. “Mike.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t even start,” said Kanadius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never planned?” said Kanadius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“That’s absolutely absurd,” boomed Zoran.

“It’s absolutely barbaric,” said Pandora.

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

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

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

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

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

Will nodded.

“What do you mean?” asked Fiana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you say,” said Fiana.

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

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

“And I,” said Will.

“And I,” said Kanadius.

“And I,” said Zoran.

“And I,” said Pandora.

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

“Agreed,” said Will.

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

“And I,” said Zoran.

“Not I,” said Pandora, seething.

“Not I,” said Fiana.

“Not I,” said Demetrius.

“Not I,” said Will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When are you going?” asked Demetrius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kanadius had the grace to hold his tongue.

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

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

“Well played, Byers.”

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

“You lead better than most,” said Dustin.

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

“Yeah.” He passed the bowl to Will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Next Chapter: The Jihad of Sayid al-Naji

(Previous Chapter: Farewell, Friend)

Review: The Averoigne Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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