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: 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)

The Lost City: Farewell, Friend

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

                                      The Lost City — Chapter Eleven:

                              Farewell, Friend

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the beginning of war between Brother and Maiden.

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

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

“Still sore?” he asked.

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

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

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

Jilanka grabbed her shirt. “Who the fuck?”

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

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

More pounding. And insistent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want?” demanded Mike.

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

“What?!” said Mike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded. “Go ahead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucas snorted. “I doubt it.”

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

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

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

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

“Shut up, you guys,” said Dustin.

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

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

“Dustin, what happened?” asked Mike.

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

“Fuckin’ A,” said Mike.

“Good riddance,” said Lucas.

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

“How did that happen?” asked Mike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Jess,” said Dustin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s rather alarming,” said Dustin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sauce,” said Will.

” ‘Sauce’?”

Will nodded.

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

“Mike,” said Will.

“Yeah?”

“Sit down.”

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

“How does the Hand feel?” asked Will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know my future?”

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

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

“Do you want to see?” asked Will.

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

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

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

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

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

“Relax, Mike. Hold me and watch.”

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

 

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

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

“Are you okay?” he asked in alarm.

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

“Jilanka, what -”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angry murmurs filled the shrine.

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

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

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

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

Pandora nodded.

Touchy little bitches.

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

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

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

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

Mike frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I offer you a place in our Circle.”

“Wha – excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike flushed red and his heart began to race.

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

Mike knew that lying would be suicide. He nodded.

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

He cleared his throat. “Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choke pear? What the hell is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very well.

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

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

“We’re not?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!” shouted two voices at once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he went on screaming for a long time.

 

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

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

“It’s how I see things,” said Will.

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

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

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

“I’m a monster now,” said Will.

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

“I’m not,” said Will.

“What?”

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

“Yes. The five-finger curse.”

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

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

“Will?”

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

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

“The curse of the Hand.”

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

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

Mike felt smacked by a ten-ton boulder.

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

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

Will nodded.

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

“No, Mike. It can’t be avoided.”

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

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

“Why is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgive me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– what? –

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

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

No!

Yes:

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

No!

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

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

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

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

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

He clutched his sword ferociously:

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

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

Lucas… I didn’t… I didn’t mean…

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

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

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

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

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

The four Brothers positioned him for decapitation.

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

Mike shook his head, crying.

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

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

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

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

Lucas… I loved you!

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

One place to run.

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

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

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

Trust no one. And hurt no one.

That’s how it would be now.

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

 

Next Chapter: Warriors of the Eternal Truth

(Previous Chapter: Eyebite)

The Lost City: Eyebite

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

                                            The Lost City — Chapter Ten:

                                      Eyebite

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I… am… a… mage.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will tilted his head. Mother?

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

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

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

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

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

Mother?

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

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

Boy.

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

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

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

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

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

“MOM!” screamed Will.

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

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

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

 

 

Next Chapter: Farewell, Friend

(Previous Chapter: The Isle)

The Lost City: The Isle

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

                                           The Lost City — Chapter Nine:

                                      The Isle

 

The island rose like an awful promise. A cairn of old rock, no more than a hundred twenty feet in diameter; a mound of homage to some terrible deed. Remarkably small, and yet reputedly more fatal than any place in the city. The longboat kept its distance as the crew watched and waited. Demetrius stood in the prow, readying himself for his task.

Mike hung back in the stern, feeling ruin close in on him. The whole mission seemed foolish now that they were here. He hadn’t risked his life like this since crawling the lower pyramid tiers. That first day – the last in Hawkins, Indiana – was an eternity ago. He and his friends had been twelve. Now only one of them was. Mike looked down at that person standing next to him. William Byers was the only member of the quest who appeared moderately calm. If anything happened to him, Mike would kill Auriga before Lucas could.

The twelve of them had assembled at the lakeside only minutes ago. The Usamigarans were six: Auriga (leading), Demetrius (priest), Shanti, Kemse, Lija, and Will. The Gormish also six: Lucas (leading), Atsu (priest), Mike, Dracut, Coval, and Azariah. Five Magi and a priest; five Brothers and a priest. The boat required four rowers. Lucas had assigned Dracut, Coval, Azariah, and himself. Azariah had strenuously objected to Lucas rowing: he was a deity, and a god did not deign to such tasks when he had others at his command. Mike should row, he said. Lucas reminded Azariah of The Creed of Gorm, which commanded even kings to assume servile roles – and as indeed Gorm had done as the first king of Cynidicea. Azariah had flushed red with shame and bowed to Lucas, accepting his chastisement.

“When will he start tripping?” asked Will quietly.

Mike watched Demetrius. “We’ll soon find out.”

Will looked up at him. “You never said how you learned about this trick.”

“Nor will I,” said Mike curtly. “You never said why a kid your age has a death wish. Now shut up.”

“Sure Mike,” said Will. “Whatever you say.”

The question of Will’s inclusion had almost killed the mission in its crib. Mike and Lucas had gone to the Magi yesterday in order to strategize with Auriga and Demetrius. When they entered Auriga’s chamber and saw Will there, they exploded.

“What the hell is this?” Mike had shouted.

“This,” said Auriga, “is my best student. I invited him to this meeting, and he will joining our mission.”

“Like hell he will!” said Lucas.

Auriga’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Watch yourself, warrior. You’re a guest over here.”

“He’s a kid, Auriga,” said Lucas, not intimidated by Auriga in the least. “He’s not going, no matter how many walls he’s climbed.”

“You can talk to me like I’m here, Lucas,” said Will.

Auriga placed a hand on Will’s shoulder as he faced Lucas. “The decision of who represents the Magi rests with me. I don’t run your house and you don’t run mine.”

Lucas shot back: “No decision regarding this mission can be made unless both you and I agree! Kanadius made that clear. Will’s participation requires my assent. I don’t give it.”

Demetrius cleared his throat. “Can I offer an opinion?”

“No, you can’t!” said Lucas.

“Well, I’m going to anyway,” said the priest. “I would respectfully submit that excluding Will would be severely disrespectful to both him and the Magi community. Will has proven himself to be a talented mage, to the extent of earning his own personal bed chamber. Even you – Gorm’s Chosen – share a room with Mike. The Magi love Will and have given him a special title. If Will is mature enough to have accomplished all this, then he’s surely mature enough to be assigned whatever task any of his colleagues take on. Don’t shame him by belittling him.”

“Nice words, Demetrius,” said Lucas, “but twelve years old is just that.”

“Unfit for life-threatening missions,” agreed Mike.

“Shut up, you guys!” yelled Will. “I’m going whether you like it or not!”

Well, well, thought Mike. Will’s grown some teeth.

Lucas was shaking his head. “Don’t get me wrong, Will. I’m proud of how far you’ve come in the Magi. I really am. But I’m not agreeing to this.”

“I don’t care if you agree or not,” said Will. “You’re not stopping me.”

“Indeed,” said Auriga. “I’ll suspend the mission if you really want to push this, Lucas. Will has been appointed, and that’s the end of it.”

Lucas had furiously relented, not having much choice. He had bottled his rage for the duration of their two hour-long meeting, and when he and Mike returned to the Brothers’ part of the tier, he seethed. In the revolving passage Mike asked him if we was okay. Lucas had finally answered:

“I’ll be fine, Mike. You just watch over Will when we’re at the Isle. Ignore what Kanadius said about protecting me. I’ve got every Brother yapping to be my personal bodyguard. Especially Azariah. If anything happens to Will, I’m going to kill both you and Auriga. Oh, and Demetrius too.”

“Are you kidding?” said Mike. “I’m already on that. Your ass isn’t worth protecting anyway.”

“Can you believe that fucking snake?” said Lucas. “He all but admits we’re walking into a trap, and he wants to take his precious Spider Child along for the ride. What the hell’s so important about Will coming along?”

“Auriga is a slippery shit,” said Mike. “It’s not beyond him to risk the life of his favorite student just so he can show him off in a mission like this.” They got off the revolving passage and headed up to their room on the second tier.

“You’ve been slippery yourself lately,” said Lucas. “Don’t think I’m blind to it.”

“Excuse me?”

“All your disappearing acts this past week. And I don’t buy for a moment – anymore than Demetrius did, I’m sure – that you just ‘overheard’ that explosive news about mushroom combinations.”

“I’m telling you, Lucas, I was in the candle shop, and a customer was going on about it.” Which was the truth: Mike and Jilanka had been shopping in that store on the day they met, when she explained the details of the drug combo that she had used to rape him in the alley.

“Yeah,” said Lucas. “And where have you been all week? You’re hardly ever in our room anymore.”

“Lucas, I told you -”

“Are you doing drugs?” Lucas asked bluntly.

“No!” said Mike, flushing red.

“So then who knows if drug combinations are really safe or not,” said Lucas. “Or if they can be switched on and off. Sounds like an urban legend. Demetrius is crazy to put it to the test tomorrow.”

Now everyone in the boat watched Demetrius closely. The Usamigarans had hopeful and approving looks, the Gormish less so, believing drugs to be an abomination. Demetrius had eaten his mushrooms back on shore, as the drug effects took anywhere between ten to forty minutes to kick in. When this combo kicked in, it would produce some interesting results.

They were rare priestly mushrooms, seldom seen outside the Temple of Zargon, and almost never in the hands of anyone except a Zargonite priest. Raen, the high priest of Usamigaras, had obtained a few of them off the black market. It was time to put a couple of them to use. Last night Demetrius had told him what Mike said about shrooms being safe and convenient when used in combinations, and so Raen had given him two shrooms for the island mission: a grade-1 priestly and a grade-3 priestly.

A grade-1 priestly mushroom enabled the eater to speak with dead souls or with undead. There was plenty of both on the isle, and who knows what they might reveal to someone asking them questions. A grade-3 priestly mushroom gave one the astounding power to spirit walk – to leave his physical body and travel about invisibly; or to have, in other words, “out of body experiences”. This was a perfect way of scouting the isle without setting foot on it – to get a peek at what was waiting there while everyone stayed safe in the boat.

Mike saw that Demetrius was staring out over the water. Lucas and Auriga stood close by him and Lucas asked him something. Demetrius nodded slowly. Then he looked back at Mike and beckoned him to the prow.

Mike swore. What does he want? Just get on with it. He went to the front of the boat and Will followed him. Will was under strict orders to stay close to Mike.

“Is it working?” asked Will when they got to the prow.

“Shit, is it working,” said Demetrius. He looked a bit dazed.

“Well, get going then,” said Mike.

“I already have,” said Demetrius. “Or rather Dustin has.”

“Say what?” asked Lucas.

Spirit walk lets the spirit leave the body. This body, as you know, is being shared by two spirits. I’m sending Dustin’s along. He asked me to this morning and I said yes. He wants to participate in the mission.”

“Well good for Dustin,” said Lucas. “He’s earning his keep for a change.”

“That’s not fair,” said Will.

“Hopefully he won’t bungle the job,” said Auriga. “Does he know what he’s doing?”

“Dustin cast a spell that brought him and his friends to this world,” said Demetrius. “Don’t underestimate him. He knows to be thorough and search the whole island.”

“Can you speak with any dead?” asked Lucas.

“Funny you ask,” said Demetrius. “I need a dead body or an undead creature present to do that.”

“Why is it funny I ask?” asked Lucas.

“Because this,” said the priest.

Lucas’s eyes widened. “Whoa,” he said.

“What happened?” asked Auriga.

“Demetrius just spoke to me in my head,” said Lucas.

“He has telepathy?” asked Mike.

Demetrius shook his head. “Not with anyone. Just the dead and the undead.”

“What do you mean?” said Lucas. “I’m not – oh, please!”

The Gormish priest Atsu had been listening closely and joined the conversation at the prow. “Indeed, you are undead, Lucas. Just as your Brothers have told you all along. But you’re not evil. Gorm has chosen you, as a zoombie, for special purpose.”

“Well, praise be to fucking Gorm,” muttered Mike.

Atsu whirled on Mike. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” said Mike, cursing himself for the impious slip.

“Blasphemy will not be tolerated!” boomed the priest. “Gorm will not be mocked!”

“Relax, Atsu,” said Lucas. “I’m sure Mike wishes to withdraw his vulgar remark and do whatever penance you prescribe.” He was glaring at Mike.

Fuck both of you. “Yes, of course. I meant no disrespect to our god.”

Atsu still looked affronted. “On your knees, Mike, and say the ‘Our Judge’ three times. And pray for the success of this mission as you atone for your impiety.”

Mike knelt and began praying. Not for himself but Lucas. He didn’t like the implications of the telepathic speech with Lucas. Or at least not from a mushroom that enabled communication with dead or undead. Mike had always thought the zoombie doctrine – and the Brothers’s phobia of resurrection – to be superstitious crap. And he knew Demetrius had thought it was silly too. He wondered what he thought about it now.

As he finished praying, Demetrius shouted to everyone on the boat: “He’s back!”

Everyone faced front and paid attention.

“Listen up!” said Demetrius to the entire crew. “I’m turning this body over to Dustin Henderson, so that he can report directly what he has seen on the island. You all know the story of Dustin and how I came to possess his body. But most of you have never heard him speak. He has a peculiar sense of humor, so you might be offended. Dustin, the show is yours.”

Dustin’s eyes blinked rapidly and then Dustin was in control. “Well, all-righty, everyone! It’s a privilege to be on this mission with you. And I’ll tell you that spirit-walking is one fucking hell of a trip. Jesus Christ. But I got to say this island’s reputation is either a hoax, or the undead inhabitants are invisible. I’ve passed over every square foot of the damn place – looked down into caves, everywhere – and I can’t spot a single creature. No skeletons, no zombies, no ghouls, nothing.”

“No tombs anywhere?” asked Auriga.

“Nada,” said Dustin. “The island is as barren as the desert surface.”

“What about Vark’s Ring?” asked Auriga.

They could see the ring of stone archways from where they were. They had stopped the boat about thirty feet from shore, and the archways were about forty feet inland. But no one could make out details or what was inside the ring.

“Well, this you’re going to like,” said Dustin. “Though maybe you shouldn’t. Inside those archways is a stone altar. Guess what’s on it?”

“The Eye and the Hand?” asked Auriga eagerly.

Dustin nodded.

“Are you serious?” said Lucas. “They’re just lying there out in the open?”

“No shit,” said Dustin. “I mean, this can’t be a more obvious trap. I think we should turn the boat around and go home.”

“Absolutely not,” said Auriga. “We came for Gaius’s artifacts and we’re leaving with them.”

“I agree,” said Lucas, “but Dustin’s right. No one has ever left this island, and two ultra-powerful artifacts are just sitting there begging to be taken. Ideas anyone?”

“Dustin, what do they look like?” asked Mike.

“Pretty fucking creepy,” said Dustin. “The Eye is all bloodshot and fleshy. I mean, it’s not a jewel or anything like that – it’s an actual human eye. The Hand looked withered and blackened, and also like real flesh.”

Mike once again wondered how these artifacts were wielded. Did their users wear them around the neck, like a talisman?

“As the legends say,” said Auriga. “They’re the real thing, all right.”

“Okay,” said Lucas. “So someone has gone through a lot of trouble to get us out here and take the Eye and Hand. They want us to have them. Maybe they are just lying there without any traps.”

“The traps are the Eye and Hand themselves,” said Atsu.

“And so I reiterate,” said Dustin. “We’re being played for fools and tools.”

“Perhaps so,” said Auriga. “But we’ve already weighed these risks, in hours of debate. The decision remains unaltered: we’re getting the Eye and Hand.”

“That we are,” said Lucas. “Enough talk. Team One, we’re going ashore. Team Two, hang back until we give the all clear.”

Lucas and Auriga had agreed to send in only half the mission at first. It would be foolish to sink all their eggs in one basket, given the isle’s reputation. If something ugly happened to Team One, then at least Team Two would be forewarned and forearmed.

The rowers brought the boat in more until they heard the scraping of rock and stopped. Then Team One debarked and started wading ashore: Lucas, Atsu, Dracut, Shanti, Kemse, and Lija. They were bravely taking the biggest risk.

Team Two stayed in the boat: Auriga, Demetrius (now Dustin), Mike, Coval, Azariah, and Will. Each team had a commander (Lucas or Auriga) as well as a priest (Atsu or Demetrius), and three representatives from each cult. Mike had known that it would be Lucas riding the first wave and not Auriga. The chief mage was a despicable save ass. There had been no question of allowing Will to put himself on the front line. Mike’s place was by his side. Mike wondered why Demetrius hadn’t reasserted himself in Dustin’s body.

The team reached the shore. Lucas turned around and waved at the boat, indicating they were okay so far. He began leading them up the slope of the isle.

Mike was all nerves. Everyone in the boat watched the isle closely.

“Lucas is brave,” said Will.

“He is Gorm come again,” said Azariah with pride. “He was the first to step on the isle and he will be the last to leave it.”

I wish he was Gorm, thought Mike. We could use a god on this cursed rock.

“Uh-oh,” said Dustin.

Everyone gasped.

Something was happening on the slope. The team members had stopped and were acting strangely. Their bodies shook and their heads jerked about. They dropped their weapons. One of them – it looked like Lija the mage – clutched the sides of her head, croaking something inaudible. Someone else, the warrior Dracut, began having an epileptic seizure. The priest Atsu fought himself in vain, falling to the ground. Then they all collapsed and began shrieking like animals.

All except Lucas. He was still himself and had his sword drawn. He shouted at his team members, desperately trying to reach them – when Atsu suddenly stood up and lunged at him like a rabid beast. Lucas barely leaped back in time. He must have been horrified but he didn’t hesitate: he ran the priest through with his sword, yanked the blade free, and then chopped Atsu’s head off.

Then the others were on him.

Chaos erupted on the boat as everyone urged a different course of action. Mike shouted at Lucas to come back. Coval advised rushing the shore to aid Lucas. Azariah was on his knees, crying praises to Lucas/Gorm, insisting this was proof that Lucas was the god – the only one who could stand safely on the isle. Will was screaming Shanti’s name, and begging Lucas not to kill his friend. Auriga said they should calm down and keep watching the shore; there was nothing to be done for their former friends; they were undead now and lost.

Dustin ignored them all – and leaped over the prow.

“Dustin!” yelled Mike. “Don’t!”

Dustin splashed thigh-deep into the water. He called back at everyone in the boat: “Stay there and wait! I have an idea!”

Mike couldn’t believe this. They were all going to die. Demetrius, where the fuck are you?

On the shore, Lucas dispatched two more of the savage undead. One of them was Shanti, and Will fell to his knees, sobbing hysterically. By the time Dustin arrived on the shore, Lucas had slain all five. He saw Dustin and started shouting furiously, waving him back. Dustin held up something in his hand. The necklace. Of course.

A stupid gamble, you idiot.

Dustin’s necklace warded against undead attacks and kept undead creatures fifteen feet away – the five who were now slain would not have been able to assault Dustin as they did Lucas – but there’s no way Dustin (or Demetrius) could have known that the necklace would protect anyone from turning into an undead after stepping on the island. It certainly hadn’t protected them from the terror gaze of a ghost who aged them into adults. Dustin was lucky.

Mike watched as Dustin and Lucas conferred on the shore. Will’s wailing and Azariah’s pious chants were driving him insane. He grabbed Will and pulled him up. He didn’t want to do this but he had to.

“On your feet, Will,” he said bluntly. “And get your shit together. You don’t get to scream about your rights to come on this mission and then cry like a kid when your friends get killed.” He is a kid, you asshole. He needs his mom and Jonathan. But Will had consciously rejected that option. He wanted with all his heart to be a mage. So be it. “Any one of us could die. Me. Dustin. Lucas. Be ready for that someday. You’re the Spider, and spiders don’t cry or make obnoxious noise. They’re silent and deadly. Understand?”

Will nodded, quieting down.

And if Will is the Spider, and Lucas the Chosen, and Dustin the Holy Vessel, what does that make me? As far as Mike could tell, he was the Twice Traitor, who savored the Zargonite drug and slept with the enemy. A fine one to lecture.

There was a cry from the shore. Lucas and Dustin had resolved their argument, and Lucas was giving the signal.

Auriga addressed everyone on the boat. “Now it’s our turn. Apparently Dustin’s necklace will protect us if we stay close to him – within fifteen feet. Let’s go.”

They all left the boat – Auriga, Coval, Azariah, Mike, and Will – and went ashore. Dustin came right down to the waterline to ensure their protection. Then they went up the slope to where Lucas looked over the dead bodies.

“What are they, Lucas?” asked Mike.

“No undead I’ve ever seen,” said Lucas, shaking his head.

“Zoombies,” said Dustin.

“Yes,” said Auriga.

“What?” said Azariah.

“Zoombies,” repeated Dustin. “Zombies that can move fast – even faster than mortals. But where are they all? Where do they dwell? When I spirit walked, I didn’t see any of them – any creatures at all – anywhere on the island.”

“I don’t know, but they’re savage,” said Lucas. “Strong as motherfuckers. Lija and Kemse were frail women, but when they turned, they were as strong as Kanadius.”

“You beat them, sir,” said Coval.

“If this had happened two months ago, or even one month ago, they might have torn me apart,” said Lucas. Ninety days in the Brotherhood had made him and Mike formidable warriors.

Azariah was distressed. “But, sir!” he said. “These cannot be zoombies, as Dustin claims. Zoombies are raised by the blasphemy of resurrection, and the result is more subtle – less ferocious. Like the body you have chosen to reveal yourself in.”

Mike couldn’t help himself. “That’s superstitious crap! Resurrection doesn’t turn people into undead.”

Azariah drew his sword. “Sir,” he said to Lucas, his eyes never leaving Mike’s, “I request the right to avenge Mike’s insult.”

Lucas stepped between them. “Azariah, put away your sword. Mike, put away your opinions. We have a job to do here.”

“But sir!” shouted Azariah. “He denies The Creed of Gorm – your creed! – and contradicts our doctrine!”

And then Lucas one-upped Kanadius. He sucker punched Azariah and sent him flying backwards. For the third time in two days, Azariah was on the ground with a bleeding mouth.

Lucas stood over the fanatic. “Question me again, for any reason at all, and you’ll be joining this pile of corpses. Am I clear?”

Azariah scrambled to prostrate himself on his knees. “Yes sir!” he screamed.

“Not trying to stir the pot,” said Dustin, “but I confess I don’t know what to make of resurrection. You’re clearly not like these animals who attacked you, Lucas. On the other hand, you can walk this island safely. You don’t need my necklace protection. The island accepts you, even if its inhabitants don’t.”

“A fascinating paradox I admit,” said Auriga. “But as Lucas said, we have a job to do. Let’s get up to the Ring.”

They all agreed and went to the top. Lucas led them, and everyone followed near Dustin. At the island’s center they came to the arches.

“Wow,” said Dustin.

“Stonehenge,” said Will.

It was indeed a Stonehenge-like group of arches made from large stone blocks. Mike knew from the gaming module that they dated from the time before the Cynidiceans excavated the Lost City. But no one knew their original purpose.

Lucas was looking through one of the arches. “I see the altar you mentioned, Dustin.” He squinted. “Yeah… the Eye and Hand are there.” He faced everyone. “All right, people, this is what we came for. I’m going in first. Wait for my signal.”

What we came for. We came for punishment, is what we came for. For pride, if not treachery. He realized then that he did love Jilanka – and wished they’d never met.

As Lucas went under an archway, Mike half-expected a wall of fire to appear and incinerate his friend on the spot, but nothing happened. Inside the circle, Lucas approached the stone altar, but he didn’t touch or take anything. He turned and looked around inside. After a minute he called everyone in.

They filed through the same archway, in an order that kept Dustin strategically placed: Auriga, Will, Mike, Dustin, Coval and Azariah. In the circle they fanned out while keeping close. It was a thirty-foot diameter area, and the altar was a five by ten-foot stone table.

Everyone saw the body parts and fell silent. No one moved or spoke for over a minute. Mike’s heart began to race. He remembered making love last night on an altar just as forbidden. And his silent vow.

“The Gifts of Gaius,” Auriga breathed in awe. “I hardly dared believe it.”

The Eye and Hand were much as Dustin had described them: a hideous looking bloodshot eye, and a withered blackened hand. They didn’t look like magical artifacts. They looked like serial killer trophies.

“I don’t get it,” said Mike. “How are you supposed to use these things?”

“We’ll worry about that later,” said Lucas. “Right now I just want to pick the damn things off the table without getting blasted by a death spell.” He looked at Auriga. “Well?”

Auriga cast a spell that identified magic and traps. When he was finished he shook his head. “The altar appears harmless.”

Lucas breathed deeply. “Shall we do this then? Same time?”

Auriga nodded, his eyes hungry.

As one, the Magi Chief and Gorm’s Chosen reached and claimed their prizes. Auriga lifted the Eye and held it reverently. Lucas took the Hand and inspected it. Everyone else looked around nervously, fearing a sudden attack of some kind.

“Mike,” said Lucas.

Mike nodded, taking from his belt the bag of holding that belonged to the Brotherhood, and to which he’d been entrusted. Lucas handed over the Hand, and Mike almost cried out revolted. It felt cold, rubbery, and repulsive. He dropped it in the bag of holding and fastened it back at his belt.

“Guard it with your life,” said Lucas.

Oh, I will. And you’ll never forgive me for it.

Will was taking out his own bag of holding to secure the Eye for Auriga, when the archways started to glow. Coval was the first to notice and shouted a warning. The stones were turning red as burning coals. And in the space of the eight archways, the air shimmered.

“Out of the circle!” yelled Lucas, leaping towards an archway. “Follow me!”

But it was too late. A second later the air under the archways turned a misty red, and hordes of savages poured through.

Zoombies.

And not dozens, but hundreds; the army which gave the Isle its name. They snarled and shrieked as they threw themselves at the altar thieves, only to be stopped by the power of Dustin’s necklace. Their eyes burned with madness; their mouths spat saliva strings surely crawling with contagion. They knew only one purpose, to kill and feed; and they never fled their prey.

“Jesus fucking Christ!” yelled Dustin. “We are certifiably in a world of shit!”

“Don’t panic!” shouted Lucas. “Stay close to Dustin!”

Everyone did that. Without the necklace, they’d be torn to shreds and eaten alive. The zoombies were so numerous that the horde extended halfway down the hill to the shore. There was no way of “walking through them” with the power of the necklace. They were stuck in the circle; protected but unable to leave.

Mike was enraged. “Dustin! Where the fuck is Demetrius? There’s an undead army here, and we need a goddamn priest!”

Dustin’s eyes fluttered and Demetrius was back. “Right you are, Mike. But I haven’t been sleeping. I’ve been using the drug to speak with these undead, and try to convince them to let us pass. I’m afraid my communication with them has just enraged them more. In any case, I’m afraid there’s little I can do. Between my spells and turning prayers, I could probably get rid of a score of these zoombies. There are hundreds.”

“Well then what the fuck do we do?” yelled Mike.

“There’s only one thing to do,” said Auriga, looking at Demetrius. The priest nodded.

“I hope you have a mighty spell up your sleeve,” said Lucas.

“I have many offensive spells at my disposal,” said the mage. “Magic missile, color spray, scorching ray, wave of exhaustion – all of which would hardly put a dent in the army surrounding us.”

“So what are you saying?” said Lucas.

“We need the Eye and we need it now,” said Auriga.

“I don’t follow,” said Lucas. “Don’t you need time to study the Eye and figure out how to use it? Not to mention ascertain its dangers?”

“Time is what we don’t have,” said Demetrius. “Auriga is right.”

“Well, then do it already,” said Mike. He couldn’t care less if Auriga fell under some curse. If he could save their asses from this mess, that’s all that mattered.

Auriga nodded. “Will, come here.”

“Me?” asked Will, surprised.

The chief mage nodded.

All eyes were on Auriga as he guided his prodigy to the altar and sat him upon it.

“Around the altar, everyone,” said Demetrius. “Form a circle around me, Auriga, and Will.”

“Whoa!” said Lucas. “What the hell is going on here? What are you doing with Will?”

Mike had his sword out. “He’s not doing anything with Will. Let him go, Auriga!”

Auriga looked at Mike coldly. “Lucas, order your Brother to cease threatening me. I command this mission.”

“So do I,” said Lucas, “and I’m still waiting for an answer. Don’t even dream of telling me that you intend Will to use the Eye.”

“That’s exactly what I intend,” said Auriga.

“Then I intend to order Mike to chop your fucking head off.”

“Demetrius,” said Auriga. “Back me up.”

The priest nodded. “We foresaw this eventuality. Ideally we wanted time to study the Eye, so the Usamigaran community could make a judicious decision. But Lucas, given our situation here, there’s no way we’re leaving this Isle without the power of the Eye. And that means bonding someone to it.”

“Fine!” shouted Lucas. “Auriga can bond himself to it! Where the fuck does he – both of you – get off trying to shove a cursed artifact down a kid’s throat?”

“The eye socket, you mean,” said Auriga.

“What?” said Lucas.

“We’re not shoving the Eye down Will’s throat,” said the chief mage. “We’re going to place it in his eye socket. We have to remove his left eye and put the Eye of Gaius in its place.”

“What?!” screamed Mike.

“One thing is clear in the legends of the Eye,” explained Demetrius. “Younger people stand a much better chance of surviving the transplant and resisting the Eye’s evil. Old people tend to die, go insane, or commit unspeakably evil acts. A child like Will – indeed a prodigy like him – is best suited to wield the Eye. If anyone is.”

“Am I the only one here who is sane?” demanded Mike. “This isn’t happening.”

Will was looking at everyone, confused and scared. Clearly he hadn’t expected this role to be thrust on him. “Auriga, I… I don’t want my eye taken out.”

“Oh don’t worry, Will,” said Mike. “This piece of shit isn’t touching your eye.” He still had his sword drawn, and he looked at Lucas expectantly.

Lucas was shaking his head, trying to digest everything. “You’re saying, Demetrius, that a child can avoid the Eye’s curse?”

“No one can avoid the curse of Gaius,” said Demetrius. “But a child stands the best chance of being able to, how shall I say it, curb the excesses of the Eye.”

“You both intended this all along!” shouted Mike.

“No,” said the priest. “Auriga and I knew this eventuality might arise, which is why we both wanted Will on the mission. No one has ever left the Isle, and now we can see why.”

Fifteen feet away in all directions, the zoombies snarled, pressing their bodies against the invisible wall of protection.

“But you don’t even know what the Eye does,” said Lucas. “What do you expect Will to do here?”

“The legends are consistent on a few points,” said Auriga. “One of those points is that the one who wields the Eye can wreak massive devastation with an ‘eye bite’ – killing any number of creatures just by looking at them.”

Everyone gasped in unbelief. That kind of power was unheard of. And terribly obscene for anyone to use.

Coval shuddered. “I for one do not trust these ‘gifts of Gaius’.”

“You’re not required to,” said Auriga. “Only to do as your told.”

“Let me get this straight,” said Lucas. “You’re going to cut out Will’s eye, give him Gaius’s Eye and he’s going to destroy this army of undead just by looking at them? And he’ll be stuck with the Eye, what, for the rest of his life?”

“That’s kind of the whole point,” said Demetrius.

“No!” cried Will. He looked pleadingly at Auriga. “Please don’t make me do this! You should wear the Eye.”

Auriga put his hand on Will’s shoulder. “This is the role for which you’ve been prepared. I will help you and guide you, don’t worry.”

“Lucas!” said Mike. “This stops right now!”

“Be quiet, Mike!” yelled Lucas, clearly torn between duty and his feelings. “Auriga, I asked you a question. Is wearing the Eye for life?”

“Yes,” said Auriga. “Once someone has bonded with the Eye or Hand, it’s absolutely for life. If you remove it after transplanting it, the patient dies immediately.”

“What about the Hand?” asked Azariah. “Can one of us use it to defeat the zoombies, instead of having Will use the Eye?”

“Not a chance,” said Demetrius. “The Hand isn’t nearly as powerful as the Eye. It’s supposed to make a warrior nearly invincible, that’s true, but even a super-warrior would have a hard time cutting down hundreds of zoombies.”

“There’s another problem with the Hand,” said Auriga. “The legends say that it takes five days for its power to kick in. But the Eye’s power should be accessible right away.”

“We’re not using the Hand in any case,” said Lucas. “The Hand belongs to the Brothers and as a group we need to decide carefully who the wielder is going to be. That’s going to be more Kanadius’s decision than mine.”

“And I assume the wielder must have his hand removed in order to use it?” asked Coval.

Demetrius nodded.

“We need to get started,” said Auriga, his hand still on Will’s shoulder. Will looked at Mike in desperate appeal.

Mike lunged at Auriga. He threw the mage off Will with his free arm. Lucas barked a command. Mike raised his sword over Auriga – and then the sword went flying. Mike found himself being restrained by Coval and Azariah. He let out a deluge of vulgarity and threatened to kill everyone in the circle.

“That’s enough, Mike!” said Lucas.

“Let me go, you fucking shits!” screamed Mike.

Lucas got up close to him. “I’m sorry, Mike. We need the Eye, and now.”

“Then let Auriga rip out his own eye!” yelled Mike, in tears.

“And let me ask you this,” said Lucas softly. “Do you really want Auriga Sirkinos to be the wielder of the Eye of Gaius?”

“I sure don’t,” said Demetrius.

“Your low opinions of me are noted,” said Auriga contemptuously.

“Our low opinions of you are shared by many,” Lucas slammed back at him. “You’re a snake who’d sell his own mother. The only reason I’m agreeing to this is because we literally have no choice. I don’t trust a mage like you wearing the Eye. There’s not an evil bone in Will’s body. I’m hoping that will make a huge difference in offsetting whatever curse this Eye will bring.”

“And I would add, Auriga, ” said Demetrius, “that I believe the only reason a power-monger like you isn’t taking the Eye for yourself is because you could die or go insane from it. It’s self-preservation that’s driving you here. The rest of us are trying to preserve the best possible outcome for everyone – and I’m talking both the short-term and the long. We – and when I say ‘we’, I mean the Usamigarans – agreed as a community that the Eye could enable us to bring down Zargon and his priesthood. We have to be very careful in our selection of the victor who prevails over Zargon. And I trust William Byers.”

“At least we agree on something,” said Auriga smoothly. “I too have every confidence in Will. And despite what you think of me as a person, I will be there for him constantly. Now please allow me to begin.”

Auriga then took a knife from his belt, and started to push Will down on his back. Will rebelled, crying for Mike. Lucas and Demetrius moved to restrain him. They positioned themselves on each side of the table, holding Will down. Auriga stood at the head of the table, looking down on Will’s face. Mike thrashed in the grips of Coval and Azariah. Auriga positioned the knife over Will’s left eye.

Mike’s fury escalated. “Jesus, at least put him to sleep, you assholes! Use a fucking sleep spell!”

“I don’t have a sleep spell,” said Auriga. “Lija did. But in case you didn’t realize it, we need Will wide awake. We have an army waiting to eat us.”

“Anesthesia is out of the question,” agreed Demetrius.

“I’m sorry, Will,” said Auriga. “I’ll make this quick as I can.” He sank the blade firmly and up into the bottom of Will’s eyeball.

Will screamed as blood went everywhere. He thrashed on the table, scissoring his legs. Lucas and Demetrius tightened down. Auriga cut deeper and under, and with the flat of the blade tried to force out the eyeball. Will howled – horribly. His agony filled the island’s air, blending with the shrieks of the undead. Auriga swore as he lost hold of the eyeball, then dug and got it again. Will screamed and begged for help. The chief mage paused, wiping sweat from his forehead. Then he cut deeper – and with a firm hold flicked upwards. With a sickening noise, Will’s eyeball popped out and fell to the ground.

Mike’s body felt numb. He was living a nightmare and wanted to wake up in his bed on Maple Street. To be a kid again in America, where horrors like this were enjoyed safely on movie screens. And where friends went home afterwards, to eat pizza and play games.

“Now for the easy part,” said Auriga. He reached into Will’s bag of holding and produced the Eye, positioning over the bloody socket. To Mike it looked thoroughly evil. What Will saw in it at that moment, Mike never wanted to know for the rest of his life. He looked as if Death itself had come knocking for him:

“Keep it away!” he shrieked. “Keep it away! Keep that thing away from me!”

Lucas and Demetrius could barely hold him down. Lucas shouted at Auriga to hurry up. Auriga obliged, wanting the surgery over and done with. He touched the Eye of Gaius to Will’s empty socket, and waited to see what would happen. Everyone in the circle held their breath.

The transition was instantaneous. The fight left Will completely. The Eye, of its own accord, attached itself and nested inside his socket. Will moaned, sounding like a catatonic, as the new body part settled in.

“Very good, Will,” said Auriga, propping him up on the table. “Are you able to stand?”

Will looked around the circle at everyone. His manner suggested the victim of a stroke. He was dazed, clumsily slow, not speaking, and his right hand twitched.

“What’s wrong with him?” demanded Lucas.

“What the fuck do you think, Lucas?” said Mike, throwing Coval and Azariah’s hands off him. “He has a piece of lich in his head now. He’s practically been lobotomized.”

The Eye of Gaius was undeniably a part of Will now: his left eye. The right was as hazel and normal as ever. The left was red, bloodshot, and unblinking.

“There’s nothing wrong,” said Auriga. “There may be an adjustment period after the surgery.”

“What do you mean?” said Lucas. “I thought you said the Eye’s power would be accessible right away?”

“It should be,” said Auriga. “Will just needs a little… prodding. I’m going to remove him from the field of Demetrius’s necklace protection.”

“Come again?” asked Lucas.

“Stay where you are, Demetrius,” said Auriga. He took Will’s hand and guided him to the circumference of the magical protection barrier. The zoombies snarled, ready to tear him and Will apart.

“Uh, are you sure this is a good idea, Auriga?” asked Demetrius.

“I’m sure,” said the mage, “that this is the only way we’ll precipitate a use of the Eye.” And with that, he threw Will into the horde of undead. The zoombies fell on him immediately.

Everyone exploded in anger and rushed to help Will.

“Wait!” yelled Auriga, holding his hand up.

Mike was seconds away from taking Auriga’s head off, when the shrieks of hunger became roars of pain. Zoombies that were on Will were now on fire, burning as if kerosene had been poured on them. It was a black fire that roasted them to a crisp in seconds. Four zoombies; then three more. The horde backed away from Will, yowling in outrage.

“Well, that did work rather well,” conceded Demetrius.

“Are you sure about that?” asked Mike. “What the hell is happening to Will?”

Will was no longer the dazed victim of a lobotomy. He stood facing the zoombie horde stiff as a pole – his legs close together, arms rigid at his sides, but shaking too. His face contorted and his left Eye burned with incandescent rage. Mike thought of the horror film from his home world, Scanners. Will looked a bit like that guy on the movie poster.

And then Will began to scream. Not like his usual screams, but a ferocious one that didn’t stop. It went on and on – a scream of such violence that had no business coming from a child. Will never paused for breath. One minute, then two. His body shook as if possessed. The zoombies were livid. Everyone in the circle was terrified. Whatever the Eye was doing to him, it was an evil artifact that craved harm.

Three minutes, then four. Will still hadn’t come up for air. His scream rolled on as he stared straight ahead, oblivious to everything. The zoombies shrieked defiance, but wouldn’t come near him.

Five minutes. Will’s scream got even louder, working its way to a crescendo. The zoombies began to skip about and yip, in some kind of pain. And then everyone yelled in shock as one of the zoombie’s heads exploded. Three seconds later, another creature’s body split down the middle, sliced in half. One second. Another’s stomach swelled, and its mouth vomited its innards. Two seconds. A neck twisted clockwise, as the torso went counterclockwise. Will never stopped.

He shook and screamed like that for a long time, and the zoombies died one by one. Each died differently, but it was always hideous. They broke, snapped, twisted, and exploded all the way down the hill of the isle, until the undead were dead. Still, Will didn’t stop. His rage needed more. Mike feared they would all be next. He came up to Will and knelt in front of him, yelling into a face that wouldn’t stop making such maddening noise.

“It’s okay, Will! You did it! They’re all dead!”

Will didn’t register Mike in any way. He raged on, as if intent on bringing down the island itself.

Which is exactly what began to happen.

A thundering crack made everyone jump. Outside the archways, a part of the ground blew upwards like a geyser, showering the air with rubble. Not far from that, an earthquake began, splitting the island across its diameter. In minutes it would divide the island in two.

Lucas raised his voice above Will’s as best he could: “Everyone back to the boat! Now!”

No one needed telling twice. They all began rushing through the archways to go down the hill, except Lucas and Mike. They couldn’t leave Will – though gods knew the kid was probably safer than anyone in the city. Mike kept telling Will to stop. Will either wouldn’t or couldn’t stop. Lucas grabbed Will by one side and Mike the other. They lifted on count of three… but Will wouldn’t budge. His Eye burned with a hunger yet unsatisfied; it wouldn’t allow him to be moved or hushed.

Another explosion erupted. Some of the debris fell close to them.

Lucas yelled in Mike’s ear: “We can’t stay here!” A sharper convulsion shook the ground, and they both ducked. Hunks of rock fell around them. Lucas’s shoulder was hit.

So this is where it ends.

And Mike felt that he had indeed reached the end, of all he could take. He hugged Will’s body and cried for his friend. And as Will shook and screamed in his arms, Mike strove to muster words: You have to stop this, Will. Come back. We need you. I need you.

The concussions became a constant, shaking the isle. Will was unreachable. The stone archways were the next to go: they pitched and crumbled, some into the circle, some outside it. One of them almost hit Mike as he hugged Will, but he was hardly aware of it. Lucas’s shoulder was bleeding. He yelled something at Mike. Mike had no ears for Lucas.

I’m sorry, Will. I failed you. We all did. We should have sent you home. To your mom. And Jonathan.

Something happened then. The island’s tremors slowly faded. Will’s body suddenly began to relax, and his scream dwindled to a soft moan. Unbelieving, Mike looked him over. He shook him gently and said his name. The rage was gone from Will’s face. In its place was a dumb confusion. His bloodshot eye stared at Mike like a parody of catatonia.

“Will?” said Mike. “Hey, are you okay?”

Is he okay?” asked Lucas, holding his shoulder.

“Say something, Will,” said Mike. “Please.”

Will moved his lips as if mentally retarded. His hand twitched as he reached up and touched Mike’s face. He worked his mouth some more, and then croaked like a sick parrot: “Mike?”

Mike cried all over again. Will was back. But the light of his mind had gone out.

 

Next Chapter: Eyebite

(Previous Chapter: Maiden of Madarua)

The Lost City: Maiden of Madarua

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 Eight:

                            Maiden of Madarua

 

Mike was out of control and it felt good.

He slammed Jilanka against the altar and tore her shirt, working over her mounds as if he’d never seen the female form. And in a way he hadn’t. Not like this, souped up on drugs that had no business mixing together. Raging he slapped her; and then shredded her tunic completely. Then he threw his face into it, devouring her, running his tongue along breasts he saw as the size of mountains.

God, what world am I in?

He boiled with desires a mind wasn’t made for. Everything about Jilanka was dialed up by five, then twenty, then impossibly more. The shroom combo had pushed sex into the fourth dimension. He roared with libidinous fury and threw her on top of the altar, and she bellowed affirmatives while cursing him. She tore at his pants, promising castration if he didn’t make this good – and he tore hers right off. She was wetter than a swamp after days of rain, and the sight of that put Mike over: he shot over her stomach and fell onto her, devouring, devouring her again…

His head was yanked up and she clobbered him hard. Then she reached for his nethers and soon had him building to another climax. She forced him inside her – and Mike went off the charts, slamming and pounding her in a humping fury. He came but stayed hard; and came again. His thrusts never stopped. He bit into her shoulder, and came again. Her legs had his torso in a vise. She shouted his worthlessness, screamed his praises, and came six, seven, eight times. He yelled and kept yelling – unbelieving this was life – as he fucked the proverbial living shit out of Jilanka Maw for fifteen minutes more.

Pinning this girl on the altar of some unnamed forgotten deity was fitting, considering how unspeakable their union was. They were forbidden lovers in a forbidden room – a temple that had been abandoned ages ago. Tattered tapestries hung from the walls. Days ago there had been evil-looking relics on the altar before Jilanka cleared it for her and Mike’s fuck-fest. A rotten cloth, curved candlesticks, an offering bowl, and a holy symbol looking like a demon – all these had gone crashing to the floor, and were still there now. This was their fourth fuck in the pyramid, in this shunned room where no one would intrude to see blasphemous lovers – Brother and Maiden – hump each other frantically as if possessed by demons themselves.

They were possessed by a near equivalent – a mushroom combination that blew their minds sky high. And without the perils of addiction or prolonged tripping. It was Mike’s first time on the drugs. He’d drunk the kool-aid. He could have gone wild like this for hours more.

When he spent himself again – he was dry ejaculating now, having cum way too many times – he realized she was lying under him motionless, regarding him with amusement. She switched off. He tried to do the same. He moaned into her neck, wanting to pound her more. He didn’t know how to switch off.

“Just tell your mind to stop it, and it will,” she said.

And sure enough, it was easy as that. The world quickened and caught up; his libido went to sleep. He returned to himself and lay in her embrace.

They stayed on the altar like that for a while, he in her arms, as she ran her fingers through his hair. Black shaggy hair that she loved to play with. Hers, like any Cynidicean’s, was snow white.

“Jesus Christ,” he said softly. “Don’t tell me anyone ever had sex like we just did.”

Her fingers massaged his head. “Anyone who’s eaten sex craze has had more and better. We didn’t go for very long. And who is this ‘Jesus Christ’ you keep mentioning? Is he a god in your world?”

“Sort of,” said Mike.

“Gorm’s your god now,” she said.

Your sarcasm is noted. And Gorm is a shit name for swearing. Lucas said things like “Gorm’s bolts”, “Gorm damn you”, and “For Gorm’s sake”, and but Mike couldn’t let go of Jesus when it came to profanity.

“And Gorm doesn’t approve you fucking anyone, especially a Maiden,” she said.

“Hypocrite,” said Mike. “How does Madarua feel about you fucking a Brother?”

“She doesn’t give a filthy shit,” said Jilanka. “It’s her Maidens who have that hangup. The Madaruan Circle allows for sex with followers of any creed. The taboo against Brothers is an oral tradition from recent centuries.”

“Well, excuse the fuck out of me. That’s probably the same for us.”

“Yes and no,” said Jilanka. “It’s true that your clan’s dislike of us is from recent centuries. After Zargon came and the cults started mistrusting each other. But celibacy is holy writ for you guys. It’s always been that way. The Creed of Gorm says that his closest disciples can’t have sex with anyone, whether Maiden or not. Don’t you know your own holy book?”

“Of course I do!”

“And don’t you think what it says is stupid?”

“All religion is stupid,” he said. “I mean… all religions have stupid requirements. We have celibacy. I’m sure you have something just as stupid.”

She ran her tongue over his face. “I’m sure you’re stupid and don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. In fact, I think you’re the stupidest shit alive.” She started rubbing his balls.

“Knock it off.” He pulled her off him. “I have to go.” He sat up and swung his legs over the altar.

She yanked him back into her embrace and kissed him roughly. Then she had him on his back again, and was on top readying for another assault. She had reactivated the drug effect.

“No,” he said, trying to disengage. “Come on, Jilanka, I have -”

She struck his face and began thrusting over him. She didn’t need him erect inside her; this was the sex craze drug. She could have ten orgasms without even touching herself.

Mike had two options at this point. Wait out her rape, or reactivate the drug so that he could match her physically in speed and reflex. But if he did the second he’d be sex-crazed again too – and a most willing partner. Either way, he wasn’t leaving the room right now.

They’re going to come looking for me.

He sighed and switched on.

 

Over a half hour later they were putting their clothes back on. He had destroyed her tunic but she didn’t care. She had spares. She put on her chain mail without a shirt. She was beautiful – tomboyishly in the way that Mike liked.

If any Brother or Maiden saw them like this, their careers serving the old gods would be over at once. The Brothers took their oaths of celibacy seriously, and while the Maidens were under no such vows, they despised the Brothers as a matter of principle – oral tradition or not. Mike and Jilanka’s relationship was a grievous offense on both sides. To say nothing of their drug consumption: that too was forbidden. In the three cults, only the Magi were allowed to use mushrooms.

He had fallen hard for Jilanka. The past five days had been his wildest if not best in the Lost City, and the guilt was eating at him. He’d thought he was happy in the Brotherhood; that he and Lucas were partners for life. They were best friends sworn into the best cult. But his few days with Jilanka had called those assumptions into question. If her accounts of the Maidens could be trusted, they didn’t seem so bad; in some ways perhaps better than the Brothers. Authoritarian but less so; making room for more freedoms. Mike found himself angered by some of the limitations placed on women in this world (except in the flaming libertarian Usamigaran community). He’d been blind to it because it didn’t affect him, but now he saw things through the eyes of his girlfriend.

And to her credit, she didn’t glorify the Maidens. Jilanka Maw was no blind follower. She was loyal to Pandora – Madarua’s Champion – but only up to a point; she ultimately did as she pleased. Her outrageous affair with Brother Mike proved that.

He said good-bye to her and left the abandoned temple, and went down the diagonal corridor to the door that summoned the revolving passage. Jilanka would follow only after he used the passage; they couldn’t chance being seen together. Mike pressed the button on the wall, and the passage moved on its turntable to align with the door. Mike opened it and went inside. The door at the other end led to the Brothers’ temple. Mike was due there in less than hour for military drills. He selected a button from the column of eight, the one that made the passage align with the north-south axis. The grinding noises began as the turntable moved. When the passage stopped he opened the door to the southern corridor that led upstairs to Tier 2. He began hurrying, wanting to get back to Lucas.

He heard footsteps ahead around the corner, and felt a flash of guilt. Are her juices still on me? Do they smell? The figure turned the corner.

It was Lucas.

He stopped when he saw Mike and stared. Mike went red, feeling another wave of guilt.

“Where the hell have you been?” demanded Lucas.

“Nowhere,” said Mike feebly. “I just wanted a walk.”

“Well you’re walking the wrong way,” said Lucas. “We’re due in the temple. Now.”

“What?” That wasn’t right. Their exercises didn’t start for an hour. His fuck-fest had gone on for too long, but not that long. The slow-time drug affected one’s perception of time, but he and Jilanka had gauged their activity with that in mind. Mike knew what time it was.

“You heard me,” said Lucas. “Kanadius has some big announcement. It’s a mandatory meeting. Everyone’s down here already. I’ve been looking all over for you upstairs, even outside. Let’s go.”

He followed Lucas back to the revolving passage. They could hear rotating noises and the door wouldn’t open; the passage was in use. Jilanka. She was returning to the Maiden barracks. Mike’s heart raced. She and I are going to get caught someday.

The grinding stopped, and Lucas pressed the door button again. When it lined up, they opened the door and went inside, selecting the northwest-southeast axis – exactly where Mike had just come from. The passage shifted and stopped, and Mike looked at the northwest door. We were just fucking down there. On the altar of a demon. I’m still on the drugs now. What has my life become? He and Lucas left through the southeast door.

They walked down the corridor to their temple. All the Brothers were there, glaring over their shoulders at Mike as he came in after Lucas. They turned back to Kanadius, who stood in front of the altar. Mike prayed the drugs wouldn’t reactivate during this meeting. What would happen if they did? Would he start masturbating on the floor, or try raping one of his fellow Brothers? Jilanka’s voice came back to him: Once you have the technique, it’s easy. On and off as you please. The drugs obey.

“Nice of you to join us, Mike,” said Kanadius. The Grand Master was plainly furious.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Mike, standing rigidly at attention.

Kanadius began. “I have big news for all of us. Momentous news. I spent a late night yesterday over in the Magi sector. We all have a low opinion of the Magi. They’re lawless sorcerers who care little for the welfare of others. But they do serve the old ways, and they hate Zargonites as much as we do. Auriga invited me to hear a proposal. They’re sending a group of Magi to the Isle of Death. And they want some of us to join them.”

Mike saw the shock on the Brothers’ faces. No one went to the Isle. No one came back when they did.

“The Magi have become aware of something hidden on the Isle – or which may be hidden there. It could be a false lead. But it’s something that has been long desired by the old cults: the Eye and Hand of Gaius.”

There was muttering now; reactions of awe and disbelief. Mike couldn’t remember anything in his gaming module about an eye or a hand. He looked over at Lucas, who shook his head.

“The Eye and the Hand are supposedly resting at Vark’s Ring – the archways that some say have strange powers. I think you all know what this means. Except Lucas and Mike. Gaius was the twelfth Cynidicean king who reigned over 1300 years ago; he was mighty and powerful, a lot like the Nithian god-kings of old. Before he died he preserved his left eye and right hand and gave them incredible powers – powers that well could turn the tide of our war against the Zargonites. Or at least help us a great deal. They’re also cursed, but no one knows exactly how. The Magi are proposing that the Eye go to them, and the Hand to the Brothers. The Hand is supposed to make a warrior nearly undefeatable. The Eye is designed for a mage’s use.”

The room erupted in fury. The proposal was outrageous. The news was either too good to be true, or too perilous if it was true. A lich was a lich and couldn’t be trusted. The Brothers began hotly objecting.

“Shut up!” yelled Kanadius.

The room quieted at once.

“When I want your worthless knee-jerk reactions, I’ll ask for them! We are accepting this joint mission. I thought very hard about it last night, and that was – is – my decision. If any of you object, then feel free to leave this pyramid and walk your spinelessness out into the desert. Right now. Anyone?”

No one spoke.

The Grand Master went on: “I saw the impossible happen three months ago, as did you all. What seems ungodly and evil is not always so.” He looked at Lucas and pointed. “Gorm’s Chosen stands among us. We’re unable to agree on what that means, but we agree that Lucas Sinclair is privileged in Gorm’s eyes and made for holy purpose. If a zoombie can offer the Brotherhood salvation, then who is to say a lich cannot? The legends surrounding the Eye and Hand are murky and conflicted. What matters is our eternal war against Zargon. Worn by a Brother, the Hand of Gaius could wreak devastation on the Zargonites.”

He paused to let it all sink in. There was some murmuring, mostly of approval. Mike’s mind was reeling. He was clueless about these artifacts. He wondered about Will and how much he knew about this joint mission. Auriga must have briefed the Magi by now.

Kanadius fixed his audience with a glare. “So I ask you, Brothers: Are we as one?”

Twelve Brothers, including Mike and Lucas, thundered: “Yes, sir!”

Will we aid the Magi in their quest?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Will we hold the Magi to their word, and to their end of the deal?”

“Yes, sir!”

“And if we obtain it, will we use the Hand with the grace and humility becoming us, not for power’s sake, but to crush the Zargonites and return Cynidicea to the ways of the old gods?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes, sir!”

“Very good!” said the Grand Master. “You inspire me, Brothers. The mission to the Isle departs early tomorrow morning. Training exercises are cancelled today. I need five volunteers for the mission. There will be five Magi as well. Lucas, you and Mike are volunteering. So I need three more. Before any of you volunteer, are there questions?”

A warrior named Dracut immediately raised his hand.

“What?’ snapped Kanadius.

“Who is in charge of the mission, sir?” asked Dracut.

“We agreed on a joint leadership,” said Kanadius. “Auriga will command his people, and Lucas will command the Brothers. All decisions will have to be agreed upon by Auriga and Lucas.”

Lucas cleared his throat. “Sir?”

“What?”

“I’m humbled by your choice of me, but I think it’s appropriate that you lead the Brothers. You’re our leader. Like Auriga leads the Magi.”

“And as your leader,” said Kanadius, “I delegate as I please. Do you agree with that?”

“Yes, sir, of course, but -”

“You are Gorm’s Chosen. The Isle of Death is plagued with your kind. For a mission like this, surely, you are the one to lead us.”

Mike almost laughed out loud. Lucas was no undead and he never had been. The Brotherhood’s resurrection-phobia was superstitious crap.

Lucas inclined his head. “As you wish, sir.”

“I do wish. And you, Mike, will back your friend in every way and guard him with your life.”

“Of course, sir,” said Mike.

Another hand shot up. A Brother named Djibor.

“What?”

“Sir, the Isle is crawling with undead and no one ever returns. We’re not cowards. But neither are we suicidal.”

“There will be a Usamigaran priest on the Magi team: Demetrius Rhone. Many of you know this priest was killed by his Zargonite brother well over a year ago, and he returned to life three months ago in the body of an alien – Lucas and Mike’s friend. Demetrius has a powerful medallion that can keep undead at bay, though it only works in a fifteen-foot radius. Still, he’s a powerful priest, and he can turn undead and use other prayers. We will also be sending one of our own priests from the Gormish stronghold: Atsu Horjei. Atsu is a high priest and will be very useful against any undead. So the team will consist of a total of five Magi, five Brothers, and two very powerful priests.”

Djibor nodded and bowed.

“And remember The Creed, Brothers. Dying on a holy quest guarantees your salvation. But as Brother Djibor points out, these are undead. Avoid being touched by the Isle’s inhabitants at all costs. If you’re lucky, you die for good. Only Brother Lucas has been otherwise blessed in this regard.”

Another hand went up. Mike winced. It was Azariah, one of the fanatics.

“What?” said Kanadius.

“Sir!” Azariah stepped forward boldly. “It is my contention that sharing command in this venture is an affront to our deity. Lucas Sinclair is Gorm come again. That he should defer in any way to the snake Auriga is an unbearable offense. Sir.”

The other two fanatics, Moser and Hyme, nodded approvingly. Everyone else was shocked and held their breath.

Kanadius looked at Azariah and then marched straight up to him. He swung his fist and Azariah went sprawling. A tooth clattered on the floor, and the warrior spat blood.

Mike’s heart raced. The man is in his sixties and he’s a fucking bull.

Kanadius looked down at the warrior. “Question my judgment again with that kind of contempt, and the desert will be your reward. Do you hear me?”

On the floor Azariah nodded, holding his bleeding mouth.

“On your feet,” said the Grand Master.

The warrior stood – and Kanadius slugged him again. Just as hard. There were gasps as Azariah collapsed with a broken nose.

Next to Mike, Lucas was keeping cool, but barely. He didn’t like being the cause of this.

“Now you can get up,” said Kanadius. “And look smart.”

Azariah stood proudly, and shouted, spitting blood: “Yes, sir!”

“Mind yourself, Azariah,” warned the Grand Master. “And remember me kindly in your prayers.”

“Yes, sir!” said the fanatic.

“Anyone else?” asked Kanadius.

Mike was rankled by something. He raised his hand.

“What?”

“Sir, what about the Maidens?”

Kanadius was nonplussed. “What about them?”

“Why are the Magi willing to team up with us, but not them? They represent the old gods as much as we do.”

“Gaius left two artifacts from his body, not three,” said Kanadius.

“Right, but why us and not them?” asked Mike. “The Maidens are warriors like us. They could use the Hand.”

The Grand Master laughed uproariously. A few Brothers laughed as well.

Mike frowned. “Did I say something funny?”

He heard Lucas hiss through his teeth. You better watch yourself. You could lose a mouthful and be sent into the desert.

“Yes, Mike, you said something very funny. Your alien otherness excuses you, perhaps. Women are not true warriors. They can aspire to be second-class fighters at best. That’s what the Maidens are.”

That rubbed Mike the wrong way. For the first time since Kanadius tried to have Lucas executed, he found himself furious with the Grand Master.

Kanadius went on: “As you hopefully know from your readings of The Creed, a woman’s proper place is in the home – where she can wage war on dirt and house pests, and the pots and pans she’s liable to burn.”

Now everyone except Mike was laughing – even Lucas.

“It seems to me,” said Mike recklessly, “that the Maidens have a history of kicking some serious ass. Yes, I read The Creed, but I read the history books you give us too.”

The room went silent. Kanadius stared at Mike for a long time.

Dig yourself out. Right now.

Mike cleared his throat. “What I really mean, sir, is… yes, we know women are inferior” – he choked on the lie – “but the Magi don’t believe that. As I understand it, they hate the Brothers and the Maidens for their authoritarianism, but to them the Maidens are the lesser evil. Why aren’t they offering them the Hand of Gaius?”

Kanadius seemed to relax. “I see your question. The Magi are pragmatic above all. They claim to be egalitarian, but when push comes to shove, fantasies about feminine strength are suicidal. Do you really think they would entrust their safety to a bunch of women? The fact that they chose to ally with us just proves how hollow their rhetoric is about the equality of the sexes.”

Mike doubted that was the right explanation, but he knew when to clam up. He bowed his head.

Another hand went up.

“What is it?” barked Kanadius.

A warrior named Gore spoke: “Sir, who will become the Hand’s owner? Who among us will wield the Hand to our greatest victories?”

“Never mind that now,” said Kanadius. “Let’s actually obtain the Hand before we decide who is going to wield it. Remember, this may be a wild goose chase. The Magi aren’t even sure the Eye and Hand are really on the Isle. It could be a trap we’re walking into.”

Mike wanted to know how the Hand was used. Was it a glove-like cover that went over someone’s hand? And what about the Eye? Was it like a gem of seeing, that someone looked through – strapped over the user’s eye?

“More questions?” No hands went up. “No? Good. Now we need our three volunteers besides Lucas and Mike. Raise your hand if you want to be considered for the mission.”

All ten hands shot up.

Kanadius smiled. “My Brothers, you are worthy of your shoulder marks – each and every one of you. May Gorm’s lightning bless you all. Stand forward when I call your name.”

Mike knew what the Grand Master was going to do.

“Dracut!”

“Sir!”

The warrior who had first spoken stepped forward. Dracut was one of the four moderates, as Mike called the faction who believed Lucas to be a prophetic role model.

“Coval!”

“Sir!”

This was one of the three militants, who claimed that Lucas was indeed a prophetic role model, but that he was also destined to lead the Brothers as the next Grand Master.

“Azariah!”

“Sir!”

That surprised Mike. He thought Kanadius would choose either Moser or Hyme from the fanatics – those who believed that Lucas was actually Gorm himself – instead of the one who had just given him lip.

But on whole Kanadius had done as Mike predicted. He’d chosen a warrior from each of the three factions that disputed Lucas’s role. Very shrewd. He was a hardass but he didn’t play favorites.

Everyone seemed pleased as Kanadius adjourned the meeting. “The five of you will rise early tomorrow morning and depart to the city. The others will be busy today, preparing food and travel stuff for the five volunteers. You will meet the Magi down at the lake. Our priest Atsu will be there already. Auriga and Demetrius are leasing a boat, which should be ready by the time you arrive. If any of you need to see me today for any reason, I’ll be in my chamber. May Gorm bless you all.”

The Brothers drew their swords and cried a salute as Kanadius left the room. When he was gone they began nattering about the mission.

“Pushing your luck,” said Lucas quietly.

Mike didn’t need recriminations now, especially not from his best friend. “It isn’t right,” he said.

“What isn’t?” asked Lucas, exasperated.

“That the Maidens are being left out.”

“Seriously, Mike?”

“All the cults are important, Lucas. Not just the Brothers.”

“That’s sure not how you felt as a dungeon master. We chose right. And Kanadius is right. The Magi know they need the Brothers if they want to get rid of Zargon.”

Kanadius is wrong. Whatever reason the Magi had to ally with the Brothers, Mike was sure it had nothing to do a grudging acknowledgment of Brotherhood superiority.

“Anyway,” said Lucas, “you want to stay and spar?”

“Hell, yeah,” said Mike, “Whup your ass.”

In sword matches, it was usually the other way around: Mike was good, but Lucas beat him three times out of four.

The Brothers began leaving the temple. Azariah, Moser, and Hyme bowed to Lucas on their way out. As soon as Mike and Lucas had the room to themselves, they went at each other hard. Their blades clashed and their blood sang. On this they agreed: sword fighting was an art, and worth living for.

It was a close match, but Lucas won.

 

That night they were on the altar again. Tasting forbidden flesh, riding forbidden highs. Seen by no one, save a forbidden deity who had faded from the collective memory. There was power in obscurity, and Mike wondered if he and Jilanka were better off kneeling here and telling Gorm and Madarua to go to hell.

“I wish you could meet them,” she said.

They’d switched off after an excessive marathon of unbridled sex, and now lay naked in each others arms.

“Me too,” he said, opening his eyes. He’d started to drift. “They’d hate me though.”

Jilanka ran her tongue over his cheek. “You’d be surprised. I think they’d see you for what you are. Certainly Pandora would.”

She won’t get off this. In the five days they’d known each other, not one passed by without her insisting he didn’t belong in the Brotherhood. Maybe this room really was for him. “I love the Brotherhood,” he said. “I just wish they’d accept the Maidens – and same for you guys.”

“We’re not guys,” she said, “and the Brothers will never accept anything outside their narrow Creed.”

“Your Circle has just as many problems as our Creed.”

“Mike, we reject the chauvinism of the Brothers, the deceptions of the Magi, and the evil of the Zargonites. How can you have a problem with that? We want a society with law and order, but one that gives strength to women.”

“You mean only women,” said Mike. “I’m not wild about the Magi, but at least they stand for true equality. There are men and women in the Magi. You Maidens prohibit men from becoming full members of your community.”

“That’s a temporary state,” she said, “but a necessary one, in order to balance the Brotherhood. Especially since they have the most influence.”

“Your ‘temporary state’ had lasted for centuries,” said Mike.

“Tell that to Kanadius,” she retorted.

“So your dream for a restored Cynidicea includes men as full members?” he pressed.

“Our dream for the restored kingdom is that all Cynidiceans can do what they want with their lives.”

That wasn’t exactly a yes. “Including drugs?” he asked. “You’re as much a heretic as I am.”

“Of course,” she said. “I’m not saying the Maidens are perfect. I believe my sisters can be moved to accept mushrooms once they realize addiction can be avoided.”

“Dream on,” said Mike. “The fact is that only the Usamigarans are okay with mushrooms, and only they practice true equality.” We should both be Magi, like Will.

“The Usamigarans are anarchists,” said Jilanka. “Their history is saturated in dirty back-handed opportunism with little regard for compassion. Is that the kind of society you want?”

“No,” said Mike. “I’m just -”

“Run by mages and thieves and assassins?”

“No, but -”

“You need warriors in charge to have justice,” said Jilanka.

“I agree with that!” said Mike. “I’m just playing devil’s advocate, because you make the Maidens seem much better than they are.”

“No,” she said. “It’s that I make the Brothers seem as bad as they really are. They’re bigoted against women, and even worse against homos. Their law codes are inflexible – sometimes more tyrannical than just. They are ultimately what male warriors can only be: deficient and unenlightened warriors.”

“Jesus, you’re so full of shit,” said Mike.

“You know I’m right.”

The truth was that he didn’t know what to believe anymore. His past five days with this girl had upended his rosy view of the Brotherhood. Practically, for one: he liked fucking her, especially on drugs. But also philosophically: now that he had a girlfriend, The Creed‘s bigoted teachings were more than just intellectual exercises; they affected someone he loved.

Loved?

It was the first time he allowed himself to think he was actually in love with Jilanka. She had raped him (more than once), and that was hardly the foundation of a healthy relationship. But he was in love with her. His first time in love. He’d skipped from twelve years old to twenty-two and never known the heartbreaks of teen affairs. Romance was uncharted waters. He was clueless how to navigate it.

All things considered, he was probably in for disaster.

“I suppose you’re always right,” he said, deadpan.

Damn right,” she said, disengaging from his embrace. She repositioned herself to straddle him. She had switched the drug effect back on.

“Wait a minute,” he gasped.

She paused over him. “What?”

He came so close at that moment to telling her about the mission to the Isle the next morning. About the Eye and Hand of Gaius. Then he thought of something else. No, he scolded himself, appalled by his perfidious idea. Then: yes, knowing it was right.

“Quit stalling,” she said.

“Not stalling,” he said. “Just switching on.” Which he did. This was his second time taking the sex craze/slow-time drug combo. And for tomorrow’s mission, he had quite a different combo planned. He had arranged it that afternoon with Demetrius.

He thought of that combo – of the dead speaking and life disembodied – as Jilanka abused him and bruised him, and he cried and came and then again before working her over just the same.

 

 

Next Chapter: The Isle

(Previous Chapter: The Spider of Usamigaras)