The Song of Strom



The Delian people have a very different creation myth than that of Eldin. Their myth, told in song, reflects the values of their people: namely strength and courage. It is written in the style of the epic poem; I have done my best to emulate one of my favorites from antiquity, the KalevalaEpic of the Finns, which served as inspiration for both The Dark Age of Enya and Ages of Ænya. Visit the link below to read this excerpt from Ages of ÆnyaThe Song of Strom


The Tao of Writing


Over the years, family and friends have struggled to understand my need to not only write, but be recognized. They see it as a need for approval, or praise, or fame. While these things do serve as motivation, what really drives me is much simpler: we who suffer from the writer’s disease are a lonely group. We are trapped on islands of our own making, and our only means of contact is through story. Through art, we share our unique view of life, and hopefully, make our mark before we go—that hand print on the wall that screams, “I was here! Once I existed!” If anything, blogging purges my brain of ideas. At best, it is my way of reaching out and making a connection.

There are so many things I would love to share about my writing experiences, from techniques I’ve learned to things writers should do to avoid heartache. But since I have yet to prove myself to a publisher, the idea seems a bit vain. Now that I am seeking professional representation, I have to be extra careful about the things I post. I have often been criticized for egotism and have since done my best to achieve a kind of Buddhist like selflessness. But a selfless writer is a paradox. How can a writer not be even a little egotistical when he must come to believe, at some point, that his voice should be heard over the din of the masses? That his experiences are worth more than another’s and must be recorded for future generations? This contradiction, between the need for humility and the need for confidence, has plagued me for the past six years since failing in my self-publishing ventures. Just like the famous koan that asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” there are many such enigmas in the writing profession. It is part of what I like to call the Tao of Writing.

Typically, an editor or publisher will give advice on grammar or try to offer some formula for what makes good fiction, as if such a formula could be found after ten thousand years of trying. I fondly remember one of my favorite stories, Anna, now lost to a computer virus, about a nun dragged to Hell by a demon. My second year professor, the one with the PhD on his wall, kept insisting what Anna should do. He didn’t like that she was a victim of random chance, that the demon could take her despite her innocence. He recommended, of all things, that Anna be guilty of masturbation—which would have turned the story into a medieval morality play (not surprisingly, his PhD was in religious studies). Everyone in my class thoroughly enjoyed Anna, however; they understood that the story had nothing to do with morality and everything to do with the futility of fear. I changed the story for a better grade, but he didn’t like it any better and neither did I. To this day, if anyone uses the word should on me, I’ll likely punch him in the face. A story shouldn’t do anything. There is no formula for success. 1 + 1 does not equal 2. Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3, once not-so-famously said, and I paraphrase, “In this business, nobody knows anything,” and I couldn’t agree more. Give me a story that does something good and I’ll show you a good story that doesn’t do it. Do all good stories need engaging, interesting characters? Not if you ask H.P. Lovecraft. Do all good stories need a well defined conflict? Not if you ask Joseph Heller, or Albert Camus or J.D. Salinger. If I’ve learned anything these past three decades, it’s that the only thing a writer should do is write. Writing is no different than any other art form. Nobody picks up a violin and starts playing beautifully, no matter how many rules and guidelines they may have studied beforehand. Becoming a good writer comes from a lot of hard work, from the 10,000 hour rule Malcolm Gladwell so brilliantly postulates in Outliers. Being a good writer also comes from living. Herman Melville could not have written Moby Dick without having worked on a ship. Mastering the craft is like learning the Tao. A monk cannot teach you the Tao, you just have to find it on your own.

Lastly, how does one persevere, or as I like to put it, ridiculously persevere, without throwing in the towel? Writers often give so much of themselves and receive zero benefit. What insane person spends thousands of hours working on a job without ever knowing whether they’ll get paid or whether they’ll even be recognized? I think this explains why so many of us suffer from depression, from Edgar Allen Poe to John Kennedy Toole to yes, even J.K. Rowling. The only way I see past this dilemma is to write to communicate without ever expecting anyone to listen, which is, again, another paradox.

Buddhists have been known to spend days creating beautiful murals (called mandalas) out of colored sand. Once the mandalas are complete, they wipe the sand clear, instantly destroying days or weeks of work. It seems like a crazy thing to do, but that is part of Buddhist meditation, the learning to let go of desire and permanence, to achieve without wanting. This is now what I must teach myself. This is the Tao of Writing.

Nudity in Aenya

bdaff-hermes_by_praxiteles

Is this really offensive?

My fans, who are typically open minded readers, are often puzzled by the naturism in the world of Aenya. Sometimes, when people learn how often Xandr and Thelana roam about naked, they become quietly embarrassed, as if I just told them I’m gay. I find this aggravating, considering we live in a world of South Park and Family Guy, where constant references to S&M, rape, bestiality, and in one instance, necrophilia, is so embraced by the public as to have become standard household viewing.

In all honesty, I love nudity in all its forms. I even love the words nude and naked, which can carry so many, often dichotomous meanings, from natural to truthful to indecent. On the contrary, I hate porn, Hentai, and  grotesque deformations of the human body on display in magazines like Heavy Metal.

Before I even knew what naturism was, it was part and parcel of my fiction. My first fantasy hero, the Greek demi-god, Dynotus, whom I created when I was 14, was more often naked than not. My inspiration for him and for Xandr came from summers on nude beaches and Greek sculpture. Neither Heracles, Perseus or Theseus bother with a stitch when standing gracefully in the Louvre or in the countless other museums of France and Italy. The late Frank Frazetta (RIP) also featured nudity in his art, which was never obscene—but in the exotic worlds of Conan seem only natural. Nudity in comics and film is not uncommon either. Before the film 300 popularized the Spartan myth for the modern age, Frank Miller had Leonidas traipsing around in nothing but a red cape (and no loincloth) throughout the graphic novel. In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan’s genitalia is only hidden by the blue tone of his skin.

What makes Xandr and Thelana unique, and I think, shocking for some people, is the way they are naked. People seem bothered by the notion of natural nudity, or nudity in non-sexual social settings. Perhaps it is the “ism” in nudism that our modern society is afraid of. But for the Ilmarin people, to whom Xandr and Thelana belong, nudity is a non-issue. In their language, the word “nude” or “naked” does not exist. After the Great Cataclysm, when the planet Aenya stopped rotating, a paradise formed in one niche of the world which provided perfect weather . . . and isn’t clothing, traced through prehistory, simply a protection from the elements? Doesn’t environment dictate cultural norms as evidenced by Amazon tribes who know nothing of clothing, or Arabic cultures whose ancestors relied on head and mouth coverings to retain moisture?

The Ilmarin people are naked in the same sense. It is not to arouse or shock or to be risqué—it’s simply their way of life. Or was at the start of the story. Just as in the Garden of Eden, the Ilmar lose their innocence when they are ousted from paradise (unlike Adam and Eve, however, they never accept their shame). The loss of innocence, and the other side of that coin, paradise, is a recurring theme in Ages of Aenya. Nudity becomes then a powerful metaphor when Aenya’s “civilized” cultures, who are greedy, hubristic and materialistic, show nothing but contempt for the shameless, nature loving Ilmar. A quote from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, which could have been lifted from Ages of Aenya, beautifully expresses how Xandr and Thelana feel,

Clothes he abhorred – uncomfortable, hideous, confining things that reminded him somehow of bonds securing him to the life he had seen the poor creatures of London and Paris living. Clothes were the emblems of that hypocrisy for which civilization stood – a pretense that the wearers were ashamed of what the clothes covered, of the human form made in the semblance of God.

From Ancient Greece to the colored “tights” of Superman and Batman, the nude form has been an icon of heroism for thousands of years. So when, as heroes, the Ilmar go into battle sans apparel, it is intended to evoke the same heroic ideal as can be found in Classical and Renaissance art. For Xandr and Thelana, their skin is their costume and nature their armor. If there is anything truly original about Ages of Aenya amid the torrent of elves and dwarves and chainmail bikinis lining bookstore shelves today, this is it. And yet, it should not be so strange or original, when one considers how commonly the heroic nude features in the Louvre and every major museum in Europe. The Internet is rife with sex, but what it is sorely lacking is the “heroic nude”. With Xandr and Thelana, I do not wish to add fuel to the fires of noncomformist thinking. Rather, I hope to revive a very old tradition, what the Christian Orthodox conversion abolished with its grotesque images of humanity. I hope to revive the innocence and beauty and divinity that is in the human form. And if that isn’t the best way to add something new to the fantasy genre—a genre that, like science fiction, should challenge social biases—I don’t know what is.

The Greek goddess, Artemis, inspired Thelana

Collecting Rejection Letters and Query no. #3

I fondly remember Marcus Carr, a classmate from USF. He was one of the best writers in our class and his fiction had, what I thought, a unique African-American voice. Even though we wrote different genres, we really appreciated each other’s work. One of my biggest regrets is never keeping in touch with him or any of my other classmates. I was too busy managing Country Pizza to attend writer parties. A decade and a half later, I still wonder what happened to Marcus.

What I do remember is that he was a no nonsense self-promoter. When I was daydreaming about fantasy worlds, he was submitting query letters. He used to tell me that he collected rejection letters like badges of honor—figuring that eventually, Fate would have to turn his way.

I never bothered collecting rejection letters before, but last night Marcus came to mind and I thought, maybe the guy had the right idea.


Dear Agent,

When Xandr meets Thelana, she is dangling naked from the hook tied to her waist, her arm reaching for the giant pearl eye of a stone idol. By the henna patterned across her body, he can tell she is like him, perhaps the last Ilmarin to be tamed by civilization. But Xandr can do nothing to save her from the angry zealots defending the temple lest he reveal himself a traitor.

Millennia ago, the sun expanded into a red giant, threatening to incinerate Ænya. To escape destruction, the Zo constructed a machine to move their planet, but something went terribly wrong; the western hemisphere became a scorching desert as the eastern half of the planet became an icy wasteland. Amid these extremes, a paradise formed: Ilmarinen.

As Fate brings new love into his life, Xandr chooses to fight for the world that rejected him. To prevent a second world-shaping cataclysm, he and his allies must follow the clues contained in the Ages of Ænya, a history book from the future.

Ages of Ænya is a dark fantasy/sci-fi adventure of 157,677 words. A spin-off and a sequel are in the works.

I was baptized Greek Orthodox, raised in a Baptist school, and married Muslim. I’ve spent every summer finding inspiration in ancient ruins or as a naturist on Greek isles. My life has given me a unique voice to offer the fantasy genre. I have been honing the writing craft since I was six years old, receiving my BA in English from the University of South Florida.

Please contact me if you would like to receive a synopsis, sample chapters or the entire manuscript.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Nick Alimonos

The Not-So Dreaded Query Letter

I would like to thank all of my fans who’ve sent me feedback regarding this story, not just recently but for over the past decade. Your support has made it possible for me to keep going. Here is a new query letter I’ve put together based on some of your feedback.

Dear Agent,

The Hook: When Xandr first meets Thelana, she is dangling naked from the hook tied to her waist, her arm reaching for the giant pearl eye of a stone god. By the henna patterned across her body, he can tell she is like him, an Ilmarin, perhaps the last to be tamed by civilization. But Xandr can do nothing to save her from the angry zealots defending the temple lest he reveal himself a traitor and blasphemer.

The Plot: In Ages of Ænya, Thelana leaves her naturist family to join the war effort, but returns to an abandoned home. Xandr is raised to become a leader, a Batal like his ancestor, but after his mentor is murdered he wanders the wilds as a recluse. Emma, a teenager with an absent father, is banished from her city for witchcraft after talking to ravens.

As Fate brings these characters together, they must follow the clues contained in the Ages of Ænya—an ancient book written by a time hopping historian—to prevent a second world-shaping cataclysm.

The Genre: Ages of Ænya blurs the line between dark fantasy and science fiction. It is a completed novel at 157,677 words. A spin-off and a sequel are in the works.

About Me: I have been writing fiction since I was six years old. My first attempt at publication was at DC Comics headquarters in New York City at the age of nine (you can imagine how that turned out). After a number of shelved novels, I received my BA in English from the University of South Florida where I studied fiction, literature, and ancient history at the graduate level. Ages of Ænya is my third novel.

Please contact me if you would like to receive a synopsis, sample chapters or the entire manuscript.

Thank you for your consideration,

Nick Alimonos

The Dreaded Query Letter

Whenever I think about publishing, I suffer a mild panic attack. Before receiving my BA from USF, I promised myself that I would stop chickening out and pursue my dream as soon as a diploma was in my hand. Just the thought of that self-promise kept me up the night before graduation. Years later, I took a book with me to Morocco called The First Five Pages, which is supposed to help writers get their foot in the door. The author wrote, and I paraphrase here, that if Dostoevsky could endure a prison in Siberia and still write, so can you (no doubt, Dostoevsky suffered from a serious case of writer’s disease). Really? That’s supposed to encourage me? I was sick (literally) the next day.

When it comes to me panicking, yesterday was not much different, except that in the 2011 Writer’s Market (a resource for writers to sell their work) I could find no more than three publishers willing to take on new authors of the fantasy genre. I sometimes wonder whether Dostoevsky felt this discouraged; I mean, the guy didn’t have to compete with video games and movies! All Russians had to do is play chess and read. At times, I feel I was born a decade or two too late.

The bottom line is, it’s never a good thing to want something too badly. It can compromise your judgment. So this is where I need your help. I have written two query letters, having done my best to follow the guidelines set forth by the Writer’s Market, and books like the dreaded The First Five Pages, but it’s tough walking that fine line between too personal and too professional. So check out the text below and let me know: does it hook you? Would you read a book like this? Would you invest in this?


Dear Agent,

From the time I was six years old, my dream was to become a writer. My first attempt at publication was at DC Comics headquarters in New York City at the age of nine (you can imagine how that turned out). After a number of shelved novels, I received my BA in English from the University of South Florida, where I studied fiction, literature, and ancient history at the graduate level.

My third novel, Ages of Ænya, blurs the line between dark fantasy and science fiction. It is an adventure story set in a world of harsh extremes, where the western hemisphere perpetually faces the sun as the eastern half of the planet remains a frozen wasteland. The main protagonists, Xandr and Thelana, encounter many marvelous and treacherous things as they battle to survive in a world prejudiced against them.

Book Length: 157,677 words.

When Xandr first meets Thelana, she is dangling naked from the hook tied to her waist, her one arm reaching for the giant pearl eye in the idol of a stone god. At once he can tell­­, by the henna patterned across her body, that she is like him, an Ilmarin, perhaps the last to be tamed by civilization. But Xandr can do little to rescue her from the angry zealots aiming for the blasphemer with their bows, lest he reveal his own ethnicity.

In Ages of Ænya, Thelana leaves her naturist family to join the military but returns to an abandoned home. Xandr is raised to become a leader, a Batal like his ancestor, but when his mentor is killed he wanders the wilds as a recluse. Emma, a teenager with an absent father, is banished from her city for witchcraft after talking to ravens.

As Fate brings these characters together, they must follow the clues contained in the Ages of Ænya—a history written by a time traveling mathematician—in order to prevent a second world-shaping cataclysm.

Please contact me if you would like to receive a synopsis and sample chapters.

Thank you for your consideration,

Nick Alimonos


[OR]

Dear Publisher,

Please consider my manuscript, Ages of Ænya, for publication. It is 157,677 words of dark fantasy/adventure for mature readers.

Synopsis: Thelana leaves her naturist family to join the military but returns to an empty home. Xandr is raised to become a leader like his great ancestor, but when his mentor is killed he wanders the wilds as a recluse. Emma, a lonely teenage girl, is banished from her city for witchcraft after talking to ravens. As fate brings these characters together, they must follow the clues contained in the Ages of Ænya—a history written by a time traveling prophet—in order to prevent a second world-shaping cataclysm.

About Me: I received my BA in English from the University of South Florida, where I studied English Literature, English Fiction and Ancient History. I have been writing fiction since the age of six. Ages of Ænya is my third novel.

Thank you for your consideration,
Nick Alimonos

Ages of Aenya: Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The Secret

Knowledge is mastery.

—Sayings of Kjus


Hundreds of feet below her, the night fires spread like constellations. Street lamps gave shape to roads. Torches revealed angled temples, domes of courthouses and the elliptical walls of amphitheaters. Mirroring the cityscape, the velvet sky welcomed her with its familiarity, made her dream of nights sleeping on rooftops. But if not for the moon painting her green with its glow, she doubted she would see the rope running down the slope to her waist. It was a perfect night for a crime against god.

All was silent but for the hush of distant waves. An icy wind came before it, like lightning before thunder, and she clutched her jade cloak more tightly to keep from shuddering. She had never seen the Sea and even now her mind reeled at the possibility of so much water. Was it as she had heard, like a thousand-thousand lakes reaching the horizon? It was unimaginable.

What am I doing here?

It was a question she kept asking herself, even though she knew the answer to it. Other thieves might rob from the market district, but Thelana was not other thieves. She knew the fruit vendor’s newborn daughter by name. She knew the carpet weaver’s son was gathering coin for his wedding feast. The merchants’ coffers were little heavier than hers and they were not without hungry mouths. In her eyes, Hedonia’s villains were the tax collectors, robbing the crop of the peoples’ labor to maintain the temple. But taking even a mite from the priesthood was a thing unheard of; and as for stealing from the idol itself, that was lunacy if not suicide. The city god, however, was not hers to fear. If she were to steal from him his pearl eyes, how could it matter, as Sargonus was a blind god, never seeing the suffering of the downtrodden in the alleyways?

Perhaps it wasn’t so much the treasure, but the climb that seduced her, with its pinnacle high as a mountaintop and its slick incline. How often had she taken up unreasonable challenges, finding herself sitting in places her siblings considered beyond reach? How often had she underestimated the strength of a branch only to be punished with a broken arm and no dinner? Was she, as Baba was so fond of espousing, as stubborn as an aurochs? I can climb that, she heard herself saying, under the shadow of that beautiful bough in her memory, to goading brothers who never seemed to care one whit whether she plummeted to a broken neck. I can climb anything.

Where others had slid—rather than fallen—to their deaths, or been shot down at the onset, she had succeeded, scaling the pyramid under the cover of night with only a knotted rope and her bare feet. Now, threatening more readily than the known was the unknown, what only the most exalted of the priesthood ever laid eyes upon: the defenses of the temple’s inner sanctum. Surely, there would be guards, unless the priesthood never conceived of such sacrilege, which, from what she understood of Hedonians, was not impossible. No danger could dissuade her, however, for survival against impossible odds proved a better bet than a certainty of shame and impoverishment.

She reached between her slender shoulders, feeling the smooth treasure that once belonged to Kin Sonomila, the great monarch inventor. The gold in her hands glittered in the dim city lights and with the click of a jade tipped button, its two halves split apart, revealing a system of tightly wound spools and pulleys. Like a bat unfolding its wings, her sword spread into a bow.

Digging her toes between the stones, chipping at surfaces untouched for millennia, she drew herself over the lip and into shadow. There she would bide her time until both eclipses were past, until sun and moon wheeled behind the turquoise giant turning the world black. Drawing into a bundle of jade, she fended off the cold sea air, and picked at the string of her bow like a lutenist as her mind meandered paths of days long gone.

Thelana, are you listening?”

The little girl turned, her chestnut braid swaying, the wooden bow slack against her thighs. “I am trying,” she said to the Nibian woman, “but I’m just no good!”

In the distance, Thelana could feel the man’s eyes riding the curves of her backside. Why does he look at me so? Is there something wrong with me?

“Let her be, Aola. She’s just a little scamp.” His tone was made more degrading by the chewing noises escaping his mouth.

Since their arrival, Brutus treated her like a creature from under a rock, like the mites and earthworms caged at her bedside. But the captain fast became her friend. Often Thelana would catch herself marveling at the woman’s beauty, at the complexity of her tight fitting leathers and silver ringlets, at the silkiness of the blood-red cape that fell from shoulder to boot. Against Baba’s will, the young Ilmarin asked the strangers’ many questions, about the tools they brought, about the sword and bow. She even managed to learn, with a speed that astonished family and foreigner alike, the Krat language. “Retrieve your arrows, Thelana, and let’s give it another shot.”

Thelana searched among the reeds, mumbling curses to the gods that there should be so many weeds resembling arrow shafts growing about her home. Something red caught her eye then, like the tail of a finch, and she pinched it up and went in search of others. The victim of her aim was a green pomegranate fit snugly and innocently within the folds of an olive tree, but only three arrows jutted from its gnarled bark. Even after ten shots, she’d failed miserably to split the fruit.

“No, Thelana,” she heard Aola say. “Other side, arrow should be on the inside, single feather out.”

“Looks like you have a lot of work ahead of you, Captain, if you she can’t tell her right from her left!” He laughed, forgot to chew, and coughed up a sliver of apple.

Thelana tried to concentrate, to quiet her mind, but Brutus’ banter was incessant.

“Pay him no heed,” said Aola, “he’s an ass.”

Thelana nodded. OK. With eyes clamped tight, she watched events unfold as she wished: the string snapping with a faint buzz, the bronze point speed away, the fruit bursting into a juicy mist.

“Don’t look so nervous,” her teacher added. “Be loose. Steady your breathing. Just remember: draw to your cheek, elbow up, release quickly.”

“What about wind and distance?” Brutus remarked.

Aola waved him off. “Doesn’t matter at three paces. Now shut up.”

Steady your breathing. Air funneled through her lips, swirled in a fire under her bosom, escaped back into the world.

Adjust for wind. She became acutely aware of it, of the bowing reeds, of every hair along her body leaning eastward. She fitted the arrow along the bow, notched the tail into the string, lifted and pulled.

“Not with your thumb!” Aola corrected. “Three fingers, Thelana.”

Her elbow bent to its extremity, already sore from a day’s mending, and she held it and held it, the bow pregnant with arrow.

“No, don’t hesitate,” said Aola. “Quick release!”

But it was too late. Thelana’s arms drifted from her face, the string became too tight to keep steady, and the arrow—distanced from the bow—flipped over and around, almost through her foot into a tangle of weeds. Laughter erupted from Brutus mouth, crushing her, adding weight to her disappointment.

“Did you see that? The girl couldn’t hit a treer if it was dead!”

“Be easy with her,” the Captain urged, “it’s my composite longbow, after all. The pull must be half her weight . . .”

Spittle was hanging from Brutus’ lips, his engorged cheeks flushing the color of his apple as he continued to laugh and choke. “What a scamp . . . when the drought hits this land, she’ll be lucky to become a whore.”

“Silence your tongue!” Aola barked. “Or I’ll silence it for you!”

“You’re wasting your time, Captain,” he went on. “Just look at her! She’s barely human. At least my mother had the good sense not to let her daughters go prancing like whores before all that’s holy. She’d have a stiff board for their bottoms, my mother would.”

“We’re not in Kratos, Brutus,” she said, “this is their land, and so long as we are their guests, we will respect their customs, however strange they may seem to you.”

“Really?” he said, crunching into his apple, “and I thought we were hiding in the wilderness, laying low and regrouping. I didn’t know we’d come upon so great a nation!”

“We’ve lost many good men,” she said, her hard beauty framed by her golden curls, “but I am still in command here, Brutus, and so long as that is, you will refrain from your glib little comments.”

“Point taken,” he said, “just don’t expect her to be replacing any of my brothers, or being any use to us, unless you plan on using her for bait.”

“If the drought comes, and the Great Moon does cover this place, they’ll need hunting skills to survive, and what better tool can we give them than the bow? At least this one is willing to learn.”

Thelana was not listening to any of it. The arrow plopped from her bow another three times and she was becoming heartbroken. I don’t want to be Ilmarin anymore. I don’t want to be a whore; I want to be a warrior; then they’d see; then they wouldn’t make jokes.

When every arrow found purchase among the reeds, not a one making its home within the olive tree, the pomegranate began to blur in Thelana’s sight, and her cheeks became warm and damp. “I can’t do it!” she cried, tossing the bow aside. “Brutus is right. I’m nothing but a whore, a little naked whore.”

The Krat woman bent down, her knee plate crunching the foliage beneath them, and with a mailed finger brushed away the tears. “Thelana, you don’t even know what those words mean.”

“Yes I do,” she said. “That I’m different, me and my family, that we’re not like you.”

Captain Aola connected the freckles of the youth’s sun baked cheeks, combed chestnut strands from eyes made more dazzling emeralds by their wetness. “Words don’t mean anything unless they mean something to you. Being different doesn’t make you any less of a person.”

“Then why can’t I do what you can?”

“Thelana,” she answered, as tenderly as any mother, “You may not fully grasp this now, but I am going to tell you a secret which I’ve learned only after many years of failure. People will mock, because they fear their own inability, that you might someday become better than they. No one is born to greatness, Thelana, it comes from your will to succeed, your ability to ignore the jeers and wade through rivers of disappointment. It comes from the courage to be lonesome in the steadfast belief in your own ability. Do you understand, Thelana?”

The little girl nodded. “I think so.”

“Good,” she said, handing the bow back to her. “Now try again.”

The arrow erupted, arching over the tips of the reeds, traveling beyond time and space, coming down in the darkness across the ages. The hoplite gasped, drawing his hand—slick with blood—from his throat. His torch clacked against the parapet. Red smeared the temple wall as he reached to steady himself, failing, slumping into a heap beside the fallen flame which flickered in his eyes.


Go back to Ages of Aenya: Chapter 3


Ages of Aenya: Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Jewel of the Sea 

Cities rise and fall with the tide. Gods of stone and symbols vanish in the winds of ages. But the children of Alashiya are eternal.
—Sayings of Kjus

My pathetic attempt at creating Hedonia in Photoshop. Since so much of Hedonia is based upon Roman architecture, I used a map of Rome as a base, adding a pyramid and four obelisks.
Banners rippled in the air, blue and tapered and hemmed with tassels, each with a truncated trident emblazoned in gold. Bridging each tower, battlements rose and fell with the slope of the land atop which hippocampus-driven chariots patrolled two-by-two. 
A multitude of peoples crashed in waves against the city’s arches, moneylenders from Thetis, fishermen from Thalassar, craftsmen from Northendell, and traders from the far eastern province of Shemselinihar. It was a canvas of a disparate humanity; lizard jerkins mingled with distantly embroidered tunics; pleated kilts married striped djellabas; clanking chain mail challenged revealing chitons. Many were of a displaced people, Xandr knew, populations which—due to invasion or famine—no longer possessed lands to call their own. Whether any were of his race, there was little way of knowing. Despite the plethora of customs, only Ilmarin fashion—the complete absence of fashion—would be shunned here. From the time he stumbled as a boy out of Ilmarinen, his nakedness was met with either scorn or ridicule or pity. The few that knew of the Ilmar spoke of them as if less than human. After a time, he learned that the world’s civilized races hated that mankind should share any affinity to beasts of the wild.

Continuing down to the coastline, a multitude of tongues jarred his ears, as few could be counted to converse in the same dialect. Hedonian speech, which to the Ilmarin sounded overly syllabic and flowery, was omnipresent, contorted to suit the enunciations of conquered languages. Adding to the noise was the twang of the sitar player’s F-string, the trombone-like bray of a saurian as it tugged at the chains tethered to its three gilded horns, the purr of the green striped sabertooth pacing in its cart, the sympathetic applause for a strongman swinging his daughter from the rope in his teeth, the chiming of the merchant nomads’ wares—from ivory prayer beads to wards of eyeball-and-hand.

Under the dizzying height of the central gate’s topstone, centurions directed the traffic of emigrants, gleaming like bronze golems, abstracts of tridents emblazoned along their convex arms. It was not long before Xandr’s weapons drew attention away from the merchants and beggars. Two men accosted him. Their horsehair crested helmets, too hot for peacetime, were tilted away from their faces. One was newly ripened to manhood, and though weighted and stewing in his bronze, hopped from sandal to sandal with naïve exuberance. The other was in his middle years, idling against the lip of his hoplon. He had a wary look about him and his breastplate with its dull polish and clawed grooves gave evidence of battle.

“From what land do you hail?” he asked, swatting at mammoth-flies with his miniature cat-o’-nine-tails.

“I am from a land far off,” Xandr replied.

“And what business do you have in the capital?” he droned, grown bored with the words.

“I was summoned by your priest.”

“There are some three hundred clerics here. You will have to give me a name, or—”

“Urukjinn,” Xandr intoned, hiding, as best as he could manage, his newfound longing to tear the soldier’s head from the collarbone.

“What?” the fresh faced soldier interrupted, “Do you mean to say the High Priest of the Sargonus Temple? Summoned you?” Incredulously, he glanced toward his companion, “summoned him?”

Ignoring the youth’s presense entirely, the hoplite studied Xandr with a mix of contempt and revulsion. “The priest does not summon . . .,” he began, but judging the Ilmarin by the kilt and boots, and the immense sword mirroring his face, he could not decide whether to call him beggar or barbarian.

“I am . . . the Batal,” he admitted through clenched teeth. “Now let me through.”

“You!” the younger man exclaimed. “You are the Batal? I’d heard you were eleven feet tall.”

“Please, Finias, no one has asked for what you’ve heard, nor does anyone care.”

A man at the dusk of boyhood, Xandr saw him now for the first time. QuasiI taught how worlds existed with only one moon or none at all. On Ænya, the greater and smaller moon affected every aspect of culture and language. Infinity was synonymous with the positive, greater attributes, whereas the small moon served as a metaphor for the lesser. A child of ill-health was born under Eon. A man of sizeable stature was named after Infinity. But this Finias displayed no characteristics one could call greater. His greaves, breastplate and helm boasted more intricate etching than those of his comrade, but they fit him loosely. No doubt he was of an aristocratic house, his armor an heirloom from his father or grandfather.

“Well, what do you think?” Finias asked sheepishly. “Should we let him through? Could he be the Batal of Legend?”

“Oh, I’m certain of it!” the other man answered, swinging and missing the mammoth fly buzzing at his ear. “As are the other dozen Batals raving in our streets! You’ve been filling your head with too much bard shit, kid. But as I’m in no mood to scuffle with muscled lunatics, there’s no sense turning him away. Escort him to First Commander. He’ll have fun with him.” Eyeballing Xandr, he added, “I warn you, vagrants coming here making brouhaha end up dead, or worse, in the dungeons.”

Sun baked roof tiles and fluted marble sprawled across their plane of view as Xandr and Finias passed under the arch and into the city. Further into Hedonia, Xandr’s senses were drowned by the exotic. There were carpets of obscene complexity draped in loose piles, children perched in niches high above the streets tapping bronze into plate ware, housewives fingering spinning mud into pottery. Aromas from a thousand different nations confounded his nostrils, from mounds of powdered saffron to barrels of almonds.

“This is the market district,” Finias remarked. “Long ago it was a temple complex, I think, but it’s turned to ruin.

“Um, there are many things to do here,” he went on, stealing nervous glances at the man towering by his side. “From the looks of you, you’ve never seen a city.”

“I have,” Xandr replied.

“Ah, but no city like Hedonia, I’d wager. All the delights of the world can be found here. That’s why Hedonia’s called the Jewel of the Sea! If you like, we can go to the stadium to see the chariots, or perhaps the gladiators would better suit someone of your . . . er, profession. Father took me to the fights when I was little, said it would make me a man, but I was sickened by the blood. He also took me to the races. I liked it better.”

“I have no interest in any of that,” said Xandr. “Just show me to the priest.”

“Yes, sir.” Finias shifted uncomfortably under his shoulder plates. “I don’t suppose you’d care for the theater? There are several performances showing right now by some of our finest dramatists. One of them, I believe, is about you.”

Xandr paused in mid-stride, noticing the second wall curtaining the horizon. “About me?”

“Truly!” he said, beaming with enthusiasm. “It’s called, Batal and the Floating City of Abu-Zabu. I mean, the actor doesn’t share your build, of course, but actors are meant for acting, not brawling. He does have a booming voice, though . . . you can hear him all the way in the two-mite seats, which is good because I can scarcely afford better. But it’s quite a riot, watched it seven times already. It’s about your, you know, your adventures, about how you slew the two-headed giant of Abu-Zabu.”

“Did I now?” Xandr’s lips eased into a smile, the whites of his teeth growing visible through the tangles of his hair. “I was not aware of that.”

Renewed courage crept into Finias’ voice, though he failed to look the barbarian eye to eye. “So, did you really slay the two-headed giant of Abu-Zabu?”

“No. I’ve never seen a two-headed giant, nor heard of a place called Abu-Zabu.”

“Oh.” Drained of his eagerness, the boy engrossed himself in the pavers on the street, counting the ones that were missing. “But if you didn’t slay the giant,” he went on, tapping a pebble from his sandal, “you must not be the one we hoped for, the Batal of Legend, I mean.”

“You are fond of speech,” Xandr admitted.

“Oh, that’s true, sir.”

When they arrived before the shadow of the second gate, Xandr peered down the alleyway framed by the face of an old library and the inner wall. Under dimly glowing lanterns, he could make out the tents that served as homes and the peasants soiled and tattered clothing.

“Do not go that way!” Finias called to little avail. “It is a wretched place . . .”

An aged man sat amid his possessions, rattling a pair of obol in his tin. With a shift of his head, the man recited, as he had countless times before, “Good sirs, sit a spell and be moved, if you will. I am no mere beggar, but a proud legionnaire of the Stygian campaign, who lost his sight to heathen hands. Alas, I cannot longer work, and only ask a pittance for a respectable burial.”

Finias lurched suddenly, kicking the man with his greave. “Get moving, worm! And take your rubbish with you. You know you can’t make your homes here.”

“Let him be!” Xandr cried, surprised by the youth’s sudden assertiveness. But already the old man was fleeing, making a trail of his belongings.

“But . . .” Finias muttered, “they’re the basest class! They sleep in their own piss!”

“He said he was a legionnaire.”

“Oh, they all say that. And they don’t belong here along the tower wall, Demacharon said so. Muck up the whole place with their filth. Besides, he could have robbed you.”

“If I am here to face merquid, feeble paupers should hardly pose a threat to me. Do that again, and you shall know my might first hand.”

The Hedonian shrank away. “Forgive me.”

Xandr scowled. Could a man or woman of Ilmarin birth endured similar treatment? “I thought such men were turned away at the gates.”

“That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Hedonia’s bursting with such riffraff. Can’t keep them all out, you know, it’s a big city, and now we have gill knocking on our gates from the other side.”

“Have you seen them?”

“Who? The gill?” he said, answering his own question, “no, not yet, but from what I’ve heard, well . . . they do give me the creeps.”

Unabated, Xandr and Finias ventured deeper into the shadows, where the glow of sun and moons was absent. His guide kept close behind as disturbing revelations set upon his innocent eyes.

“I’ve never been this far in,” Finias admitted. “I’m no longer a guide here.”

The Ilmarin paid him no heed, fists clenched and eyes pained. “So . . . this is where Hedonia hides its poor and downtrodden,” he said quietly. “Did your father never show you this?”

“No, sir. He died a long time ago, on a campaign to liberate the barbarians.”

Children huddled near a flame to roast pigeons and rodents. Peasants mottled with boils shuddered with fever. A few bodies lay wedged between stone embankments as feasts for mammoth flies. A newborn wailed like a distant squawking bird, its pleas going unanswered.

Someone called to them from below in a voice so strained from lack of use it could hardly be recognized as a woman’s. She had not reached the third season of her life, yet her face was split from years of worry, where soot had set too deeply to be washed away. Dark strands, never knowing the touch of a blade, reached long across her face, and many spindly legs skittered freely between each hair. Finias stepped away, shielding his nostrils with a raised forearm, but Xandr knelt beside the woman, gazing honestly upon her. Her eyes were clear, he could see, as they were so often washed in tears.

“What do you want?” he asked her.

She straightened, letting the ox hide slip from her knee to reveal a thigh. “One copper drachma,” she answered, pointing to the upturned helmet in her lap, “for half a moon passing.” She worked up a smile but it was hardly sincere.

Xandr turned to his companion. “Give her what money you have.”

“B-But, sir!” he stammered. “If this is what you crave, I assure you, there are better women to be had in Hedonia! This is not the place for us! Come away with me to the Temple of Irene, choose from the youngest stock, from the most lovely females the Empire has to offer, any hair, skin, or shape you fancy . . .,” but seeing how the barbarian remained unmoved, the Hedonian added, “for the right price, there are the sacred virgins, trained in the arts of love without ever knowing a man’s touch . . .”

“I care not for whores!” Xandr cried. “Give her what money you have and I will repay you in blood on the battlefield.”

The soldier emptied his purse into the woman’s lap. Falling on her hands and knees, she poured the contents onto the cobblestone, counting four gold drachmae and two copper. Fearing she might be deceived, she hurried the gold into her mouth, bent the soft metal between her molars. With that, she lifted her eyes to Xandr, awestruck, as if looking upon a god.

As he turned to leave, she brushed his shoulder and loosened her tunic, and now they could see her pale flesh stretching tightly over her ribs.

“No,” he said, turning again.

“Please, kind sir,” she murmured, “Do not shame me. Of all the times I’ve lent this body for copper, let it now be for gold.”

He snatched up the tunic, thrusting it violently into her arms.

“Mercy.” Casting her face in shame and shadow, she motioned to a bundle against the crumbling wall; in it was a young girl. “Would you like . . . my daughter instead? S-She’s older than she looks . . . and she has experience . . .”

With that, the Ilmarin’s mood changed so frightfully, even Finias was made to tremble. “Away from me, whore! And with this,” he added, indicating the coins in her hand, “buy back, if you can, her innocence.”

As the two strangers retreated to the façade that was Hedonia, a pair of eyes followed, shining like emeralds amid the squalor and the shadows, hidden in that den of man’s waste and the waste that had been made of men.

***

My best friend Evan Kyrou, who lives in Athens, Greece, designed many symbols around the trident theme. Originally, it was to give me options for the official Standard of Hedonia, but they were all so superb, I decided to use them all in my story. And it makes sense, considering the variations on the swastika the Nazis used or the myriad versions of the Christian cross. 
Throughout the city, in bronze relief across doorways and on marble pedestals, in armor donned by stone goddesses and flesh and blood soldiers, everywhere a traveler could look, Xandr noticed the varied forms of the trident. In some instances, the standard of Hedonia was garlanded by laurel leaves. Elsewhere, the trident included flanking hippocampi. But as they neared the Coast of Sarnath, it was more often a rising sail from the mast of a trireme. The naval trident, as Finias called it, greeted them at the door of the First Commander.

Demacharon was a broken man. It was clear to see upon meeting him, though Xandr could not tell where he was broken or what had broken him. Weaving across his handsome face, a violet discoloration divided his cheek and chin, a scar having not healed properly. But it was little clue to his brokenness, as Demacharon wore the deformity like a medal of honor.
“What have you brought me now, Finias?” he asked without ceremony. “Another cliché?” A map spread across the granite slab between them and Xandr noticed the Empire’s chalk outline, which the neighboring kingdoms could never have agreed to. Hedonia encompassed all the lands from the Dead Zones in the West to the Dark Hemisphere in the East.

“Um . . .,” Finias stammered, “this is Xander. He claims to be the Batal of Legend.”

“Excellent,” the commander replied. “We’re saved.”

“Yes, um, and he seeks audience with the High Priest.”

“Oh?” He sighed with distaste, lifting his eyes to study the newcomer. “Few men look upon the High Priest. What makes you believe you’re worthy of the honor?”

“It is no honor for me,” said Xandr, “I merely answered a summons.”

“A summons?” he replied, and as if there was no reasonable way to reply, he turned to the young escort. “Finias, go do something useful, will you? Go clean my steed.”

“Yes, sir!” he exclaimed, slamming a fist against his breastplate. “Truth and Honor, sir!” he cried, making an overly dramatic about face before marching out of the room.

“Yes, yes, truth and honor,” Demacharon said warily, waving him off.

As the sound of Finias’ clanking bronze softened, Demacharon leaned across the empire. “You’re a long way from home. Yes, I know what you are—wearing that kilt with such discomfort. The refugees we’ve taken in over the years have the most difficulty adjusting to . . . modesty.” He added the word carefully, testing Xandr’s composure.

“To modesty or shame?” The thought of other Ilmar passing through the city made his heart thrum, but Xandr’s hardened face betrayed no emotion.

“And what would you know of shame? Or anything for that matter?” Demacharon exclaimed. “You’re kind prefer living where deserters go to be exiled.” He stood, revealing the naval emblem of trident and trireme across a bronze breast, the wine dark blue of his cape swaying from his shoulders. “But you can fornicate with swine for all anyone cares. Leave the moralizing to the moralists, I say. My citizens and I fear only one thing, and we have it in great supply: xenophobia—a distrust of strangers, especially those with cultural differences.”

Despite the commander’s harsh words, Demacharon did not elicit the same reaction as the guard at the wall. There was sincerity in his convictions that made it difficult for Xandr to hate the man.

“So what’s your story?” he went on. “Witness many awful things in the untamed lands?”

“No worse than on your campaigns,” Xandr replied. “Though my hands are clean of innocent blood.”

The commander grinned appreciatively. “We’ve beaten back the wild so that men might live free of terror. The lives of a few short-sighted dissenters is a small price to pay. Besides, our hands rinse clean in the holy waters of the Sargonus Temple.”

“Do they?”

Demacharon stood by the tower window. A glorious vista spread before him, the center of the city, and beyond it, the surrounding cityscape with its gleaming marble colonnades, magnificent rotundas, and pediments lined with gods. At its extremity, the land sloped to the opposing city wall, where blue and white roared and rocked against silhouettes of long narrow hulls and masts as numerous as shafts of wheat in a field. Xandr was no stranger to the Sea, yet so much water never failed to impress him. Even at such distance, the salty air was intoxicating.

“My father was a legionnaire,” he said slowly, “as his father before him. The cause has been in my family for generations, and you think to barge into my chambers, lob a few pointed words at me and alter my loyalties?”

Xandr was tempted to argue but chose the wiser course of discretion.

Now Xandr could see, through the opening in the wall, the monument complex casting its shadow over the city. In a perfect rectangle of green, the Temple of Sargonus stood in gleaming white and gold, mirrored in a pool of equal dimension, flanked by six obelisks that stabbed at the turquoise moon. It was a three-sided pyramid flat at the apex, with a ramp of steps ascending from its base to the arched recess at its center.

The Ilmarin was dumbfounded, speaking only as words came to mind. “What giants could have built such a thing?”

“No giants,” Demacharon replied. “Unless men can be called giants. Slaves and freemasons, tens of thousands, laboring for decades before the time of the High Priest Callusa. Impressive, isn’t it? I’ve dragged holy men prepared to meet the Taker before the Temple and watched them renounce their gods, watched them grovel in humility.” After a pause, he added, “I don’t know what his Eminence thinks you can achieve—even if you were sent from Nimbos. I never would have thought it possible, the Batal an Ilmar, a small degree above animal . . . yet if his Eminence believes, I must also. But mind your tongue before him. Nature worship is heresy in Hedonia, and heresy is punished by death.”

Another masterpiece by Evan Kyrou depicting Hedonia and the Temple of Sargonus at sunrise. The ship leaving port is a Hedonian trireme. Notice the “equine trident” on the sails. I thank Mr. Kyrou for offering a far superior (than mine) image of the city!

Ages of Aenya: Chapter 1

Continuing from the Prologue, here’s chapter 1 of Ages of Aenya. I will be posting chapters 2 and 3 in the coming days, up until Thursday, when I’ll be heading out to the post office to mail these out. It will be too late after that to give any constructive criticism, so if you have something to point out, or if you just want to show your support, now is the time!

Billy Tacket drew the first ever Xandr, pulling this image straight out of my head. Notice the snail in the background. Also, Xandr is wearing a loincloth, though no self-respecting Ilmarin would bother.  

Chapter 1

A Compass for Miseries

If the body is offensive, then it is offensive to be human.

—Sayings of Kjus

Again he planted his battle ax into the gelatinous head, squeezing slime from an antenna as he wrestled to keep seated aloft the snail’s olive-green shell. With that final stroke, the cloven head submerged without a squeal and the warrior slid from its neck to the rim of the marsh. Under the turquoise moon quartering the horizon, he gazed over his kill and spat, and cursed.

The sword strapped to his back reached over his shoulder, quivering with lust. He could feel its fire running to his ankles. But it would not taste blood. The attack had come from beneath the murky waters, offering little time to unsheathe Emmaxis, so the snail that fed on passersby met its fate instead by his readied ax.

Flakes of mud caked the clefts of his chest and days’ old blood marked his massive limbs. Scars told many tales across his body. But despite his hard edges, Xandr was like a nude god etched in timeworn granite. Only the eyes were soft, untarnished, seeming not to belong to him.

A curled maple leaf escaped from his palm and the autumn gale carried it beyond the brambles of the marsh. Against the crimson sky, it looked as if it might return, but Xandr was mistaken; it was no leaf he was seeing but a soaring shape, a wing taking form as it approached. He shielded his brow from the glare of the eclipsing sun and there was now a man where the shape had been, flecked with feathers gray as a pigeon from cresting scalp to winged heel. Familiarity unfastened the knots in the warrior’s temple and he loosened the grip on his ax.

“Ouranos!” he called through the gold tangles of beard that grew over his lips.

Shifting into a glide, with toes pointed down, the avian stretched into the wind and the feathered-membranes between his hips and wrists waxed to fullness.

“Ouranos,” he called again, his voice grown hoarse from lack of use. “What brings you from Nimbos?”

The avian studied him gravely, expressing disappointment. “Always to the point with you, eh, Xandr? No time wasted on formalities? No polite chatter regarding myself or the nest mate?”

The Ilmarin betrayed no feeling, scraping another layer of swamp from his chest to reveal the long winding scar that defined him.

Flexing his wing beyond his fingertips, Ouranos shimmered, his feathers changing hues like a peacock’s, from silver gray to shades of blue. “I should have known to find you in a place so inhospitable. Drowning your miseries in misery?”

Xandr knew the bird man hated this place, hated that he could not see to the edge of the world where the turquoise moon met the horizon. Here the surrounding growth choked the air with muddied greens and browns, boughs twisting at odd angles to meet the sky and vines of weeping willows drooping like maids in mourning. Only the smaller violet moon hemming the tree line beckoned with promise of hospitable lands beyond.

“This is no home for a human,” the bird man admonished. “When shall you return to the family of men?”

“Men are cruel and stupid things, and no longer interest me.”

“So you are satisfied here, in this Marsh of Melancholy?” Ouranos asked, his chirp pitching angrily. “You would be king among the . . . the mosquitoes?” Seeing how Xandr was unmoved by his reasoning, the avian changed tactics, twittering in a gentler tone. “How have your wounds healed since last we parted?”

“I have scars to remember you,” said Xandr, taking an overgrown root for a seat. “But the gorgons were lost to the tar pits.”

The avian let out a cacophony that was always strange to the Ilmarin’s ear, an amalgam of human laughter and a parrot’s squawking.

“How does the world look from above?” Xandr asked, loosing his shoulder length braid from the mud in his hair.

“All the lands are in disarray,” Ouranos replied. “Everywhere I look . . . suffering. This moon past, I spied a woman offering breast milk to her village, for her infant was stillborn and her people wasted with hunger.”

“All life is suffering; joy is but an aberration.” He picked a whetstone from his pouch and ground the fan shaped edge of his ax with long, lazy strokes. “The people can keep their miseries. I am done with them.”

Straining at the straps at his shoulders, Xandr impaled the ground with Emmaxis, setting the sword between them despite the bird man’s uneasiness. Ouranos disliked the way his reflection twisted about the sword’s skull face or how the blade remained flawless, without nicks or smudges of any kind. It was as if Emmaxis was perpetually born from the molten fire of a blacksmith’s furnace. Despite being five feet in length, the blade nearly vanished on edge. Once, Ouranos joked that “Emmaxis can cut you just by thinking about it.”

“Are your senses still attuned to the elements? Feel about you,” the avian implored, “there is great change in the wind. The seasons grow colder . . . Omens of change abound.”

Xandr’s braid whipped about as he turned from the bird man. “Let me alone.” Somewhere in the heart of the marsh, a beast brayed with agony as something massive snarled and stomped the ground. Numerous other things raised their voices in a fearful clamor, but Xandr gave it no heed. Only Ouranos’ milky, white on white pupils darted with apprehension. His bones were hollow and many a creature considered him prey.

“When will you stop wandering?” Ouranos continued, reaching with a feathered palm, “you cannot hope to outrun the gods nor unfasten the strings of Fate.”

“What do you know of human gods? Or of my Fate?”

“I am your only friend, Xandr, who but I would know? . . . It is ignoble to hold to the memory of the dead.”

Xandr’s fingers tightened about his sword, eyes fixed on the devilish intricacies of its hilt as though looking upon a long departed friend, paying no heed to the ear pinching whine of the fist sized dragonmoth—a poison shade green with wiry tendrils—which floated up from the moon to drink from the snail’s corpse.

“The dead . . . is all I have.”

“No!” Ouranos objected. “There are others . . . I have seen them . . . I—”

The Ilmarin’s expression shifted, the blue of his eyes receding under the shadow of an angry brow, a warrior once more. “Have you simply come here to torment me? Away with you, bird man!”

“No, I’ve come to deliver a message.”

“A message?” Xandr sat dumbfounded. He could not imagine who besides Ouranos could know him to deliver a message. For the past half decade he lived as a recluse, scavenging for food, sleeping—whenever fortunate—under shade of wood fronds.

“Eclipses ago, a human climbed to the Tower of Heaven, a feat we once believed impossible. He hailed from the city by the Sea, from the capitol of the Hedonia Empire. They are at war, he said, with the waterlings, with those they call merquid.

“It is strange that this should happen now, that waterlings should rise against groundlings when they’ve coexisted for untold millennia. I fear it is a sign of the darkening times. But no matter! The Hedonian spoke of the Batal of Legend. He paid a talent of gold so that we seek him out, and so I knew I had to find you, as you are the only one who has spoken this name to me: Batal.”

The word floated in the air between them, no less poisonous than the dragonmoths gathering at the corpse of the sinking snail.

“Those are men whose bones have long become dust,” Xandr replied. “. . . For all anyone truly knows, they may be less . . . they may never have been at all. No more than lies.”

“Myths are not lies, but tales to inspire others,” Ouranos corrected. “And I was sent to find this Batal, to deliver the plea of Urukjinn, and as I believe you are this person, to your ears shall this plea be given!”

“Urukjinn? Should I know him?”

“He is the High Priest of the Sargonus Temple. Lead a contingent of hoplites against the merquid and he promises his virgin daughter to you in wedlock, with such a dowry as to make any man king.”

Xandr’s fingers ran through his beard skeptically as Ouranos let a grin escape him. The avian had hit upon something, not the promise of love or riches but something else, a choice of words that intrigued the barbarian. “Dowries and spoon fed princesses do not entice me. What of Nimbos? Is the Council of Azrael too cowardly to lend arms?”

“Since the age of the Zo we’ve kept to the mountains, that we never know war. You know this, Xandr. No groundling or waterling has ever posed a threat to us. If we were besieged, then perhaps . . . But do you not think this is what you’re meant for, to be hero to these people?”

“Avian cowards!” Xandr spat. “Your tongues should be cut off to speak of heroism! Even so, there’s no Batal—it is a fiction born of hope, of desperate fears by desperate men.” He tugged his sword southward, but the blade remained fixed in the damp soil. “I shall go my own way!” he barked, half-speaking to the weapon. With that, Emmaxis surrendered into a wild arc, nearly kissing Ouranos’ lip.

Still gripping the hilt, Xandr turned on his heel like a weathervane against a changing wind, sword parallel to the horizon. Ouranos stared with amusement, his feathery eyebrow arching. “It points you to Hedonia.”

The Batal cursed and spat as he wrestled with the weapon. A shaft of sun ran platinum white along its side till its tip shone like a jewel against the West.

“It is your destined path.”

“No, Emmaxis follows blood. It is,” he added tiredly, “a compass for miseries. Remember that its name means blood spiller in the Ilmarin tongue. It senses war, an opportunity for slaughter.”

“That sword is the closest you’ll come to love,” Ouranos said. “I suggest you do as it wills.”

“Should I do that,” Xandr replied, “you would be dead. But perhaps there is something there for me . . . in Hedonia.” Under heavy gold brows wet with mist, Xandr maintained a contemplative gaze, like a master painter before an empty canvas.

“I am uplifted by your change of heart and shall tarry no longer,” Ouranos replied. “Farewell, my friend, and good journey.” The avian caught the gale, the feathers of his wings bristling and billowing with fullness till he began to rise, and with a sweep of his arms he was distant again.

***

Irrigation channels split the field about the crook of the river, radiating from a hilltop like the spokes of a wheel. The huts that followed the water’s course were of thatched straw and stacked dung with spaces left open for windows. Lone doors hung open, captive to the irregular whims of the wind. Age old chips of paint hinted at better days. A three-legged beet dog was losing a race against a lanky rooster, looping in circles about the village square.

Children were curious enough to approach him, pocking the hard earth with bare feet, wondering at the sword and ax jangling with each of his steps. Those with older relatives were snatched up with frightened whispers. A few women moved about hastily, their wicker baskets and sun baked ceramics teetering overhead, their stares hidden under their shawls. None greeted the Ilmarin.

Finding no inn or tavern, the stranger accosted a man hacking at rows of dirt with a rust-flaked hoe. Beside him, a humpbacked aurochs shackled to a plough hoofed at clay, its frilled horns crisscrossing over the two men. “Blasted scrabs,” Xandr heard him grumbling, “They’re more of them each season!”

“What place is this?” said Xandr.

The man nudged the brim of his hat to take a better look at the stranger, his nose dipping under his beard as he spoke. “No place you’d want to be, I can assure you. Most folk pass through here don’t know they did. But should anyone ask, this here’s Akkad.”

“You are different from the others of your village.”

“Oh?” the farmer replied. “And how’s that?”

“You do not fear me.”

“Should I?” A chuckle caught in his throat. “Fools just haven’t been around long as me. On the planet, that is. Naked as the day your mother pushed you from the womb and with those eyes of yours­­; only Ilmarin-folk have eyes so fair.”

Xandr smiled. “You have a gift.”

“And you’re a well built fellow, even for a wild man,” he said, straining under a crooked spine. “You might not be some kind of god now, are you?”

“I confess, no.”

“Always good to be kind to strangers, see, never know when they might be a god.”

“You have nothing to fear from me. Your kindness is your own.”

Even as he said this, Xandr could sense the man’s growing unease. It was not an uncommon reaction. But the farmer was more intrepid than most and Xandr did not have to ask the reason. Loss was camouflaged beneath the old man’s unassuming demeanor; a plague or raid had likely stolen his wife and children and such men feared neither the loom of Fate nor the scythe of the Taker.

“How grow the crops this season?”

“Scrabs,” he replied. “I’ll be damned if you don’t need a pickax to crack those buggers. They chew up my roots, but you can turn ‘em into a nice soup and bowl. I only just got planting: ollyps, blums, watermelon grapes, napshins, hockenberries, tomatoes, the usual sort of thing, but harvest is small, seems less so each year. I say . . . we’re headed to famine.”

“Perhaps the Mother Goddess shall favor you.”

“Well, sure is hot this day,” he replied with a hesitant wipe of his brow, unsure of which goddess was meant. “I’d be grateful just for a cool wind.”

“Can you show me the way to Hedonia?”

“You mean you don’t know? I thought every man knew that. All roads lead to Hedonia, or so they say.

“Look,” he said, “Don’t you see it?” Silhouettes of obelisks and rotundas, no bigger than his thumb, stretched across the turquoise moon like a chain of mountains. In the distant haze, the city looked like a mirage, like some great masted ship drifting in the ether. “Follow the Phayus to the Sea.”

“I am thankful it’s so near. I expected another cycle of walking . . .”

“You may yet,” the old man replied. “Those monuments are monstrous.” His bitterness for the place was evident on his tongue. Even his aurochs rattled the leathers of its harness and brayed with distaste. “Tell me, son, why go to Hedonia?”

“I am summoned there.”

“Well, you can’t go as you are . . . an Ilmarin in the capital!” He again attempted a laugh, but his mouth was too full of dust. “You’ll be turned away at the gate! I was . . . once, when my wife was ill. Dressed too much like a beggar, they told me. Haven’t you anything at all to wear?”

“Nothing but a strap for my sword,” Xandr replied. “In the untamed lands there’s no need for such trappings, and I have long to join the company of other men.”

“Don’t trouble yourself,” the farmer replied. “I got boots to spare, made from my own hide. Well, not my hide, but you figure my meaning. In lunar days I work as a tanner. It helps when so many shoe worn travelers pass through here seeking the city.”

Xandr could not tell whether the offer was out of kindness or a plea for self-preservation. Oftentimes, it was some measure of both. “I am grateful, but have no coin for it.”

“Alas,” he said with pity, “truly, there are no poorer folk than Ilmarin folk.”

“I am not—we are not poor!” Xandr said to him. “No man is poor who wants for nothing. An Ilmarin needs only a weapon. All else the Goddess provides.”

“Pff!” he intoned, waving Xandr away. “Blessed by Sargonus are those who show kindness to a stranger. But be forewarned: should you find yourself caught in the wheels of civilization, sooner than you realize you’ll be laboring like my beast to repay some debt. A land of riches, sure, but those who go there hunger for want of the soul, living to forever quench their greed, their appetite for wine and meat, their lust.”

“Do not preach to me, old man,” Xandr said angrily. “When my people made their exodus from their lands, the men were made beggars and our women, as they were beautiful, were taken to wedlock and forced to denounce their traditions. I know of civilized men.”

“Now I meant no offense and I apologize if you took it that way. Sargonus watch over you.”

With the farmer’s words fresh in his ears, Xandr took shelter under a eucalyptus which had sprung up from the riverbank. Bathing in the Potamis—what was here called the Phayus—could wait till sunrise.

Watch the sky.

As he did so, Eon chased Solos’ chariot behind the greater moon in the celestial ritual that turned day to night, and slowly he drew forth Emmaxis, gazing at his distorted, shimmering reflection across the blade. He had days to succumb to the lure of sleep for only after terrible weariness did the dread and pain become forgotten. Gold and turquoise and violet streaked the dying sky and in shifting clouds he sought familiar faces. And one by one, the stars emerged, glinting like tips of daggers.

Continue to: Chapter 2: Jewel of the Sea

Ages of Aenya: Prologue

UPDATED: 02/09/2012
Here it is, free of charge, the prologue to Ages of Aenya. If you’ve ever cared about my writing, or this story, now is the time to show your support! Next week, these words will be traveling by manila envelope to New York, where dreams are made and crushed! Needless to say, it’s a bit nerve wracking posting something you’ve been working on for ten years. Is it perfect? No. Art is never perfect. As George Lucas once put it, “films are never finished, just abandoned.” So this is me, abandoning my prologue. In terms of publishing, these are the all important first five pages that will determine whether Ages of Aenya ends up in somebody’s trash. Throughout the week, I’ll be posting chapters 1 through 3, which will also be flying to NYC. If you have any suggestions, comments, like to point out grammatical or spelling errors (hey, I’m not perfect) or just have an opinion other than “that was nice,” please let me know—some stupid little oversight could save me from the trash! So without further ado, I give you the beginning:

This is the very first piece made for Ages of Aenya (ten years ago, it was simply called the Dark Age) by T’Lustachowski
AGES OF AENYA
By
Nick Alimonos
Between the Light and Dark Hemispheres, there is a land called Ilmarinen, named after the ilm flower of orange and violet. In Ilmarinen, it is said, there is no poverty or war. Grasses brush softly so that children might chase through fields unblemished. Aeons-weathered boulders make beds for lovers and poets and stargazers. There the Monastery of Alashiya stands, ancient beyond memory, repository of forbidden knowledge.
 Of all Aenya’s peoples, only the Ilmar remember the age before the Great Moon, when we failed to save the world from Cataclysm. In memory of song, they remember us, our hubris and our wisdom.
From the Ages of Aenya, Volume II, as recorded by Eldin

Prologue

Hand over foot, Xandr managed his way to the top of the plateau, where the air was crisp about his pores and the green scent of fallen rain filled his lungs. His arms spread against the greater moon, Infinity, the turquoise crescent that straddled the horizon. The other moon, Eon, shone like an amethyst in the morning sky. Beneath his battered soles, waterfalls vanished into mists between foothills where a thousand shades colored the valley from the jade of the leaves to the amber of the oaks to the gold of the sun gilded Potamis. Beyond the north passage, the Mountains of Ukko met the heavens like strokes of chalk.

Ilmarinen was as he ever knew, but he found no sense of oneness in its valleys today, for questions still churned in his mind.

Apart from his scabbard belt and the lapis lazuli in his braid, the young monk was clad only in the Goddess. All the ground was his shoes and the sun his coat, and Xandr never knew any other way of being. The sword and the blue mineral were his only possessions, but he was more interested in the stone, remembering the girl who had given it to him—she had, he thought, a pleasing face and an easy gait and he admired the skill with which her henna was applied, the pattern running up her thigh to form an arrow shape between her breasts.

Leaves rustled behind him and he turned. Effortlessly, his hands and feet met the nooks in the olive tree’s roots. Descending the hill, he spotted his mentor rounding the path.

“Queffi!” the boy called. “I am here!”

QuasiI did not appreciate Xandr’s sudden disappearances, but never punished the boy’s eagerness to explore. Blinded by the sunbeam flaring off the old man’s scalp, the boy suppressed the urge to laugh. It was not as if his mentor lacked for hair; his ash white locks reached to the middle of his back and his silver streaked beard concealed the whole of his collarbone. But the top of his head was as barren as the western hemisphere.

“Recite the names again,” his mentor droned, steadying himself on his quarterstaff.

What enthusiasm he’d shown earlier that morning drained from his voice. Not ecology. Again. Why can’t I learn about trikes or mammoths? Or dragons! He doubted he would ever face mortal danger from an elm.

“That one’s camphor, and there is an elm and an olive tree . . .” The fruits of the olive branch were flat and dull in color, not yet ripe for the beating. It’s odd, he mused, how the limbs are smooth but the trunk is gnarled . . .

“Xandr!” a voice rumbled. “Focus!”

The boy suppressed a groan. “Maple, birch, um . . .,”

“Did you forget?” QuasiI admonished, displeasure adding creases to his face. “You must not forget the names of trees, or they will forget you.”

“Yes Queffi, that is true, but—”

QuasiI bent to example a sapling, thumbing the tiny leaves between thumb and forefinger. His mentor was often distracted by miniscule things too, sometimes looking aloof, but Xandr’s respect for him never lessened. Despite his age, his mentor’s hands looked strong enough to squeeze water from a rock. And the old man knew things no one else did. He could tell when rain was coming days before; he knew the age of a tree by touch alone; and he referred to each animal as if part of a great family, explaining how the rabbit was cousin to the deer and the deer to the ornith.

Every year on the morning of the Solstice, the keepers would descend to the village to select among the wisest of the youth a protégé to be raised in the monastery. A boy or girl showing an aptitude for metallurgy was taught the secrets of metals, and after a lifetime of study was expected to replace their mentor as Keeper of Metallurgy. So it went with all the secrets of the universe. But Xandr was unlike the others. For as long as he could remember, he lived with the keepers, and though he cared little for plants, he was expected to know everything about them. As QuasiI often reminded him, the discipline of ecology was the greatest of all the sciences, but Xandr could not bring himself to agree. He much preferred the tales of the Zo with their vast cities and fantastic machines and world spanning wars. The boy could not understand why the Ilmar, despite their advanced knowledge, had no such things—why Xandr was, in fact, forbidden possessions of any kind. Whenever he asked the keepers about it, he was told, “You are the Batal,” and nothing more.

“Shall we go over flowers, then?” the old man suggested.

Leaves cracked underfoot as the boy circled with impatience. Xandr was a jumble of energy, nimbly ducking branches and hopping roots without suffering a scratch. “Queffi . . . there are things I wish you to teach me that you never have.”

“Such as?” He arched a bushy eyebrow, knowing what weighed upon his pupil’s heart, and the boy knew it also, knew his mentor was testing him.

Xandr decided to ask a simple question first to loosen the old man’s tongue. “I want to know of the customs beyond the south river. Is it true that in other lands, humans need to cover their bodies?”

QuasiI cleared his throat of morning phlegm, as though he were about to recite from the philosophers. “People are as diverse as the flowers of Aenya. Just as the soft soil suits the ilm so that it may flourish, so do the customs of each peoples differ so that they may prosper. Ice does not fall from the heavens as it does in the Dark Hemisphere, nor does Solos’ chariot scorch the flesh as in the Dead Zones. Here in the Womb of Alashiya, we live as simply as we are born, as Kjus teaches us.”

“But Queffi,” the boy went on, bouncing eagerly from the perch of a mossy root, “Why should we burn under a life giving sun? Are we not to roam freely about the world? Or are we to remain still in our soil, as the ilms do?”

“The body is an absolute good.” QuasiI breathed deeply, as if answers floated in the air like spores. “Just as our cousins, the merquid and the avian, the human is born of the Mother Goddess, lovingly and minutely refined over the aeons. The flaw is not in us—I fear—but in the world. Before the greater moon loomed in the heavens, every land was as Ilmarinen; every species lived as we do, without clothes, without possessions.”

“What happened?” Xandr asked a little too loudly. “Was it the Cataclysm? The Zo?”

The old man’s smile cut like a wrinkle across his face. “I suppose you’ve been keeping late nights again with Brother Zoab?”

“I have,” Xandr admitted. “But he tells only fantastic tales, myths and legends.”

“We are all keepers of ancient knowledge, Xandr. Do not forget, just as I keep the names of the flora, so does he keep knowledge of the outer universe. Zoab is Keeper of Moons and Stars.

“Sciences, philosophies, faiths . . . myths; all these are woven together; all knowledge is story.”

“Then tell me—,”said Xandr, jumping forward, “is it true what Brother Zoab says of the star they call the Tooth of Skullgrin? Of The Wandering God?”

QuasiI paused to glare at the broad shouldered youth who stood up to his chin—then hurried off, his staff clacking against the stones. “I am not so certain Zoab should speak to you of such things. You are not yet a man.”

Xandr held his anger in his fists so that it not show on his face. He was no longer a child. When a boy or girl began to show hair about the loins, they’d partake in the rituals of the Solstice Night. Though Xandr had yet to jump the sacred bonfire hand-in-hand with the girl that was to be joined to him, the time was upon him, as evidenced by his maturing body. “No,” he protested, “my hair has grown, and my chin is coarse. Soon I’ll be bearded, and a man!” Xandr never challenged his mentor so openly before, but he still lacked the courage to meet the deep well of wisdom that were his mentor’s eyes.

“Have you been practicing the technique we went over, the delayed counter?”

Devoid of thought, a hand flied to the pommel at his hip. “Yes, every day and night!”

“Show me.”

“Wait . . . you always trick me into forgetting my questions this way. But you won’t this time.” And he folded his arms defiantly.

“So the Batal has come of age, eh?” It was more a question than a statement. “Come.” Without a further word, they followed a path clear of shrubs formed by years of treading feet.

Layers of limestone rose above the tree line. An immense white willow grew at its peak. Its trunk always made Xandr think of a bent woman with a cane. It was a place for bloodless battles, long discourses on philosophy, and an observatory for the Zo, Alashiya, and Skullgrin constellations. As was their custom, QuasiI let his staff against the mossy stone and was seated. Xandr folded his legs atop the boulder below, tucking his manhood between his thighs, a thing which had become a bother lately, especially when he thought of the young girls bathing in the waterfalls in the valley below. He assumed it was a part of his growing to maturity, but he was destined to be the Batal, which made him wonder whether he would ever join in the festivities of the Solstice Night.

“The sapling,” QuasiI began, “too feeble for the outer world, remains safe within its seed. There it waits till ready, till strong enough to break its shell and lay roots in the earth.”

More metaphors! If there was one thing QuasiI did that annoyed him, it was speaking in metaphors. “But teacher,” Xandr informed, “I’ve already bested you with my sword!”

The old monk waved a dismissive hand. “You know how to kill, but it is not what matters. You forget the sayings of Kjus, ‘knowledge not tempered by wisdom sows destruction’. I may know to destroy this willow,” he added, shaking the violet bulbs from the branches with a slap of his hand, “yet I may not have the wisdom to hear it speak to me.”

Xandr threw his shoulders back, the sunlight turning his hair to gold. “But I am ready, Queffi, ready to leave Ilmarinen, to be the Batal.”

“And how can you be so certain, my son, when you do not know what lies beyond the Potamis? Look there . . .” QuasiI pointed to a tree as tall as the sky, with branches thick enough to walk upon, “the Batal is like the mighty camphor. It begins as a berry no bigger than your thumb, but then it grows, becoming home to many species . . .”

Having heard the lecture countless times, Xandr’s mind drifted. QuasiI was either stubbornly repeating himself or becoming forgetful. It was not quite as boring as ecology, but philosophy made him want to sleep. He greatly preferred Brother Zoab’s tales of magic and monsters and heroism. Shifting in his limestone seat, he pulled at his ankle to study his sole. It was black as soot and rough as leather, the cracks in it like some form of lettering. Something in his heel had been causing him pain since starting along the path. It was strange, for there were days when his feet carried him through dense brambles without leaving a mark. Things seemed wrong to him today, as though the greater and smaller moons were misaligned. Running a thumbnail to his heel, what he thought a splinter was a thorny seedling. His questions were also like seeds, he considered, only now taking root in his awareness.

After his mentor was finished speaking, he looked up from his sole, saying, “But am I not already the Batal?”

QuasiI rubbed his skull, forming new folds of flesh, as he often did when frustrated. “No. Not yet. Before becoming a great man, you must first become a man.” He gazed into the sunrise, drawing images with his hands. “Only by relinquishing pride, by surrendering possessions, can one hope to escape the mistakes of the past. It is why the Goddess chose us, for of all the world’s peoples, only the Ilmar desire nothing.”

“But will you not tell me, plainly, what I am meant to do?”

The wizened monk drew a long, tired breath, as if much work was before him. “True understanding comes from oneself. You will know when you learn to listen to the trees, to hear the voices of Alashiya.”

As if suddenly remembering something urgent, the old monk’s attention came away and they became aware of it—between the turquoise moon and the violet glow of the smaller—a gray ribbon of smoke diffusing over the orange sky.

Xandr could see the turmoil in his mentor’s eyes, but to a boy so innocent, imagination did not lend itself easily to horror. “What could it mean?”

“No,” he murmured, never straying from the ribbon of smoke. Instantly, the staff was in his hand, no longer a stick for walking but a weapon, and QuasiI became more than he had been, a warrior of commanding presence. “We’ve been found! Hurry, Xandr! Today you prove yourself!”

And for the first time the boy sensed real uncertainty in his teacher’s voice.

***

Xandr raced ahead, leaping over bustling creeks, never minding the thorny seedling that dug deeper into his sole. Twisting boughs obscured his sight, roots impeded his passage at every turn, yet he maneuvered around them without conscious thought, letting the pull of a slope take him when it would. With each step the smell of burning intensified, quickening the drumbeat under his chest. Whether QuasiI had followed he could not tell, nor could he hear the rustle of the branches or the ballad of the sparrows. All that mattered were the notches and the footholds he knew too well, blindly meeting feet and fingertips at will.

The cylindrical monastery crowned the peak, rising from the rock as a phoenix with folded wings in a quartet of buttresses. It was the only familiar sight. Flames spread along wooden frames; blackness billowed overhead; and a mob of hideous gray creatures scampered every which way, their pumpkin-sized heads bobbing with wicked urgency. Faces Xandr knew became distorted through dust and sweat and distance. His friends were holding the field, but there were too few short swords and quarterstaffs and desperate fists to stem the tempest of blades. A whining sound pervaded his ears, like laughter, mocking the shrieks of the wounded and dying. Flames swirled about torches clutched in clawed fingers. Stones launched through windows, instantly shattering centuries of mosaic splendor. And somehow the gray, emaciated bodies found the strength to drag the fallen to a gathering, where others with daggers joined in the stabbing, raining blood over sacred earth and walls.

Bogrens.

He knew them from the lessons on species relative to human. Those lessons now seemed remote, for knowing their names gave him no confidence nor made them less terrifying.

His empty sword belt struck the ground as horror gave way to rage. No thought commanded the legs that carried him or the arm that thrust his blade between a bogren’s shoulders. The squeal pained his ears and the creature slumped forward. Its limbs bent at awkward angles like a sleeping toddler along the ground. Streaks of black painted the silver of his sword, dripping from the tip as from an ink-dipped quill. The hilt quaked in his palm; it’d never drawn blood. But despite the bogren’s hideousness and the awfulness of its deeds, its death brought the boy little satisfaction. Instead, Xandr felt a loss in his soul. The slain bogren had taken something from him, a peace he would never know again. But in the madness of battle, loss gave way to euphoria. It pulsed through his veins till consuming him, thrilling him, frightening him.

Aware of the danger he posed, a host of Gray Ones turned from their victim, shaking their blades clean of entrails, measuring the boy through folded pupils. Without minding their fallen comrade, they advanced with daggers hooked like talons, speaking in tortured syllables. Unconsciously, Xandr moved his blade between him and the points directed at his underbelly. Chrome flashed, arched in semi-circles and twisted back in figure S’s, dancing to the ring of metal. The bogrens were swift but he was a blur of naked flesh. Mired in gore, Xandr fought with a ferocity and desperation never seen by his fellow monks. For never in all his years of sparring had he known the company of the Taker and now the God of Death became his shadow, patient as a vulture as one bogren after another crumpled at the boy’s feet.

And always were the lessons guiding his hands:

You must be everywhere and nowhere; you must move faster than thought, faster than perception permits. 

Two fell under him in a single stroke, one scalped from the horns, the other gutted through the ribcage, its plum-sized heart split across the middle. At the sight of this, the remaining two wailed and scampered off on all fours.

But Xandr soon learned that they were not retreating, but regrouping. Every evil eye fell upon him. Like locusts they swarmed him, grinding shoulder-bones as they joined together, every dagger gesturing how a man might be butchered.

CRACK!

Wood split in his ears and Xandr knew he was not alone. Tendons became unfastened; vertebrae snapped and grew limp; eyeballs smashed into brains. The old man fought through the horde with total economy of movement, not a blow wasted, not an incoming blade left to chance. He turned their attacks as a parent swatting an infant’s hand. The staff was everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, at once vertical and immobile as a cedar, at once horizontal and devastating as a tidal wave. Out of decades’ training and centuries’ tradition, the staff painted Ancient symbols of power in the old man’s nimble hands. QuasiI was Keeper of Flowers, the greatest of the warrior monks, and the bogrens felt his greatness.

Side-by-side with his teacher, Xandr believed himself indomitable. Together they would drive back the attackers, send them cowering from whence they came. But his thoughts strayed to his friends; who among them were gasping through punctured lungs or spilling their last into the dirt? Which of his mentors somewhere called his name? And there was the ultimate question of why, reverberating in his skull, tearing at the tissue of his reasoning. Why is this happening!

With staff and sword they fended the onslaught, but as bodies piled at their heels, more bogrens came as if from nowhere, clawing with abandon over the dead and injured, redrawing the circle of battle to narrower confines.

“Xandr, the sword!”

It was QuasiI, his voice muffled by dying squeals and the crack of wood and the indistinctive din of battle, but his meaning rang clear. He could have meant only one.

The sword.

His feet damp in blood, Xandr fled for the monastery across corpses of men and monster. Ash rained across his path, dusting his blond locks and skin shades of gray. Blinking to clear his sight, he could make out a vague shape of what had been his place of sleep and contemplation, now dissolved in an inferno of oranges and reds, opaque vapors stretching like willowy tendrils from the colonnade of arches to the swirling darkness above. He groped at the bronze rings and the door came apart, burning his fingers.

Muttering to the Mother Goddess that the temple not collapse upon him, he moved through the aperture, not knowing even how much of the structure remained. His forearm shielded his tears and each breath burned like embers in his lungs. Despite the brightness of the fire, he stumbled forward blindly, fighting the blackening clouds of soot rolling through the corridors.

Xandr knew the way to the Chamber of Forbidden Knowledge. Often he had gone to stare at the arched double-doors to guess at its secrets. Only once, during his twelfth year, when QuasiI went with Brother Zoab to meditate on the mountain, had he dared to peek within. Memories surfaced of the muted colors of an old mural, the shadow of a great sword, and the approaching footfalls that frightened him away.

Turning the corner, he came to a place thick with smoke, though he could still picture the intricate patterns etched into the door. Wrenching it ajar, a grinding echo met his ears. His soles touched the cold marble flooring and his lungs began to swell. It was as if the fire was forbidden from entering.

Tides of force crashed against his bosom as he crossed under the doorframe; it was, he felt, like passing into another world. Shafts of light cascaded through mosaic windows from a domed ceiling, making the dust glitter, painting the chamber in lurid colors. Moving further inward, his shadow lengthened across a concave mural: a circle of monks bowed before a sleeping child and a great phoenix spread wings of orange, blue, and white. But the sword in their midst was no interpretation of oils and pigments. Shimmering silver mirrored his charred and bloodied visage with surreal clarity. The sword was positioned to create the illusion that the painted phoenix was clawing at its hilt.

An eerie feeling of familiarity washed over him as he stood, his forefinger hovering over the icon of a boy of about three, or four. He shut his eyes and saw the mural come into reality; he could hear the monks’ conflicting murmurs, see their faces as they moved toward him.

Could that be . . . me?

The sword rose tall as a man out of a great stone dais. Upon its hilt a yawning animal skull, with teeth growing like thorny brambles from its jaw, emerged like some ghastly apparition fighting to escape its casting. Gazing long into the nodes and cavities that made up its face, Xandr was overcome by a sense of vertigo, feeling as though he were looking through the cavities that were its eyes, where a universe of potentialities loosed upon his fragile mind: waves swallowing empires, serpents taking the guise of men, stars falling from the heavens, and bloodshed, always bloodshed. It was a hunger in himself, a longing for slaughter not all his own. Tearing himself away, he heard with uncertainty the sword calling him, whisper its dreadful name.

I am Emmaxis.

Remembering his mentor and how he had to rush the sword to the battle, the boy awakened from his stupor. His palms grew clammy about the handle, the alloy quivering at his touch like some living thing, and at last he freed the sword from its base. The sound of metal released from stone resonated throughout the chamber like something moved after untold ages. Wondering how any man could wield such a great, ungainly thing, he carried the sword with some difficulty under his arm and made for the flames.

Sunlight pained the boy’s eyes. Gasping, he descended the steps of the blazing monument to witness the crimson field of bodies. He stumbled through the haze, over the remains of friends and mentors, numb and trembling.

“From nowhere.” It was a voice, passing in step with the boy, like a gust through the leaves.

Xandr leaned an ear against the black and hardened lips. “Zoab! What’s happened? Who still lives?”

“They came from nowhere, the gray devils. We were . . . un-armed, un-ready. From no-where.” His voice broke off, but he continued in the attempt to speak, till the rhythm of his breath relaxed and gave in to quiet release. The youth was taken aback by the sudden trespass of the Taker, at its utter lack of ado, at the mundane way in which the cords of Life came unknotted. No longer would Zoab’s folktales enflame the boy’s imagination.

“Rest,” said Xandr, cupping shut unseeing eyes.

He continued through the carnage, searching the horizon without a will to find, till brushing against the wrist of Pawn, the sword of his old sparring partner dull and sullied with use. The boy looked peaceful in his repose, his body cushioned by wild grasses, and if Xandr had not seen his bosom wet with streaks of crimson he might have believed his friend asleep.

But where was QuasiI, he dared ask himself? He screamed the name, perusing dead faces, dissected between hope and fear.

Amid a scattering of gray corpses, a lone scalp shone whitely in the sun, and Xandr cursed himself for all the times he’d mocked his mentor’s lack of hair. His eyes darted between the glitter of hilts rising and falling, a pool of blood expanding and changing shape beneath the still form, and the boy collapsed to his knees as his legs could no longer hold him.

“I am here, Queffi!” he said. “I am—!”

QuasiI shifted his glazed eyes heavenward, and his awfully parched lips cracked into a smile. “The trees . . . we must save the trees!”

“The fire has subsided, teacher, but the temple is gone.”

Whether saddened or relieved by the news, Xandr could not tell, as his dying mentor’s face became a mask too weary for expression. “I staved off the Taker till your return.”

Xandr tugged the handle into the cold, crumpled palm. “Here, I brought you the sword, as you asked.”

“The sword has but one use . . .,” he struggled, every syllable bringing pain, each word another dagger. “It’s your burden to keep now. Watch the sky. Watch for the omens!”

The boy turned away, letting his braid hide his eyes, wet, in part, from smoke. His hands trembled over the sunken daggers as though his will could undo the act. “NO!” he protested. “We could have fought them . . . we could have fought them together. You taught me to move without thought, but I hesitated. I doubted.”

“Weep not, son, for Life is more than a body, a mind. I am in the trees, the ilms . . . in you.”

“Don’t leave me alone!” the boy pleaded with him.

“Remember . . .” the elder one coughed, red trickling like capillaries across his parched lips, “. . . remember. . .” Blood came bubbling up to froth across his lips and the old man’s eyes drifted, as if seeing into a world Xandr could not. The finality of it was crippling. At once the boy knew the sword would remain an enigma. And what he was meant to be—what the Batal of Legend meant—he would never learn from his mentor.

A scream erupted across Ilmarinen, through the timbers of oaks, over the orange and violet valleys of the ilms. Against the sunken breast of his mentor, he wept, cradling the inert skull in his arms, laying gentle kisses upon its forehead.

Surrendering the body to the earth, the blood streaming from the corpse became clear as water, and the knobby fingers turned brittle, and his mentor’s limbs expanded into branches. Before Xandr realized what had happened, the body of QuasiI was no more. Where it had been was now a tree, a tree he could not name.

Nothing was left to the boy but the hideous sword and part of him wished to cast it back into the ruin, as if it were to blame. Why had QuasiI told him to retrieve it? The weight of the question collapsed him like a marionette.

An answer came in the wind, or from the will of the sword, or from instinct, directing him through sinuous belts of gray to a pair of orbs returning his gaze. The face was like a pitch mask. He could see no more but an immense silhouette, and swifter than a hunted animal, it was gone, lost to the surrounding copse.

Mustering his rage about the sword, Xandr followed down the slope beneath interlacing light and shadow. Tracks led every which way, but only the fresh hoof prints were significant. He would have vengeance not on the demented minions who had done the deed, but on the one who commanded it, on the rider moving south.

He vaulted over moss-covered boulders, leapt trickling ravines, but the world stretched on and on. How he could catch a man on horseback while shouldering a sword larger than was meant for human hands, he dared not think. All that mattered was that he run, even should his life become a matter of pursuit.

And the thorny seedling dug deeper, becoming part of him.

The violet moon of Eon did not pass a quarter arc from the turquoise halo of Infinity when Xandr came to a curtain of mist. The air was heavy and damp and he could hear the roar of the Potamis dashing against the bank. He climbed over the toppled rings of a column, the granite made smooth by its return to the earth, and he came to recognize the thing that he pursued. From above the waist it was a man, densely muscled, with skin as opaque as polished onyx and a beard like fire. The rest of him waded across the white crests of the river, the turbulent waters rising to four knobby knees.

There had been no rider after all. Beast and man were one. And if not for the Potamis, he would never have known the object of his hatred. And Xandr came to realize that no simple murderer stood before him, but an entity from far beyond the cradle of his world.

Remembering the emptiness newly gaping in his heart, the boy moved into the river. “Villain!” he shouted, splashing into the web of foam emanating from the bank, the sword tugging him down, submerging beneath the current. “You will not escape me!”

The dark mass slowly turned. Its voice came low and soft, fringed with the intonations of an aristocrat. “And who might you be, to command me?”

“I am the Batal of Legend!” the boy boasted, and the metallic shaft came about in a wide arc, though it looked more as if the weapon were wielding him. “I challenge you to a duel to avenge my mentor!”

Hoofs clapped the shallow waters and with a casual gait QuasiI’s killer set his pupils upon the quivering nude, a sardonic smile etched across his stony countenance. “Set down that oar, boy,” he answered, “for we are not at Sea.”

Xandr swallowed hard, finding his voice with difficulty. “Why did you kill them?”

“Ah . . . I thought I’d heard a why in the wind, but thought it was a sparrow. Why, you ask? Why do we suffer? And why must we inevitably face the Taker?” He galloped forward, his fingers tipped like daggers, the river frothing about his equine thighs. “Do not seek answers when there are none. Truth is an illusion, a matter of will.”

“I am no fool!” Xandr cried, hiding, as best he could, the treble of his voice. “Tell me plainly why you’ve come.”

“Indeed, I can see that you are neither fool, nor coward. For that, I commend you, and allow you to leave in peace, to live out your days for as long as this land remains. We are not butchers. We came not to murder. Knowledge is what we’re after, but your people were clever enough to store their power in memory. Now that they’re dead, their knowledge dies with them. How very wasteful.”

“Their wisdom lives in me,” Xandr asserted. “Now tell me your name, so that we may remember your defeat in song.”

“I am Nessus, Dark Centaur, Commander of Legions, Ravager of Kingdoms great and small. But to you, I am your end.”

“I do not fear!” Xandr managed to bellow, but it came out hollow, more like a plea than a threat.

For the centaur, further speech was unnecessary, as his response was to unsheathe the twin obsidian sabers at his sides. Xandr surged forward to engage him with wild, oblong strokes, but Nessus turned each attack away.

The centaur loomed heads over the youth, coming down with animal fury to sever his brash opponent from both the left and right shoulders. But Emmaxis moved with improbable swiftness in Xandr’s hands, joining the twin blades as Nessus met his own scowling countenance upon its mirrored surface.

Stepping away, the young monk drew the centaur into a wider circle, just as QuasiI had taught him, till Xandr’s heel touched upon dry soil, on the north side of the river, leaving the other’s hooves to splash in the current. The boy danced in dizzying loops, sprang and rebounded, lurched with deadly accuracy. Feet skirted sideways, tendons stretched low imitating the killing motions of the horned beetle. He could not manage to swing the sword around him swiftly enough, but rather appeared left of it, right of it.

“You are powerful . . . for a child,” the low voice rumbled. “Unfortunate that you were not born to us!”

The centaur was heavier than a warhorse, with limited lateral movement, made more so by the river coursing about him. The fact did not go unnoticed and Xandr acted to outflank his foe, to sink his metal into broad horse flesh.

Between man and monster, intersections formed and reformed with violent suddenness, tossing embers as their weapons came together. An exhaustive array of thrusts, parries and near misses showcased a plethora of arts, including the delayed counter, which was intended to lure Nessus into an overreaching attack. But reversals gave way to counter-reversals, and soon Xandr succumbed to thought, in how to compensate for the extra weight and length of his blade. Reach and force were its advantages, but whether the sword possessed any fantastic qualities, he could not tell; there was but the eerie, life-like quiver of its alloy and the constant drone in his head to kill, kill, and kill—if not Nessus—something.

Every fiber of the young nude’s muscle throbbed in defense. For though the centaur proved less agile, it offered no more advantage to Xandr than if he were fighting a windmill. Nessus possessed monstrous power, using hoof as elegantly as saber, fighting with a battle-hardened lack of pretense the youth could never counter. Each deflected blow weakened the pubescent warrior’s resolve, and it was not long before the two-handed sword chaffed in his palms and tugged at his spine.

With his hatred spent, Xandr’s grip loosened, and Nessus sent the sword spinning away. In falling, Emmaxis sank deep into a boulder at the river’s edge. Rebounding from the impact, the first of the centaur’s sabers flew back as the second cut diagonally, from hip to collarbone. Xandr’s torso peeled open. Blood pooled between his toes.

Hooves clomping through dirt and clay, the Dark Centaur began to pace the river. “What know you of Aenya in this paradise?” Between his outstretched fingers a sphere erupted, a ruptured surface of arid reds and cobalt. “You know nothing of hunger, of those who hunger . . . You do not even know the true wealth of this land. But wait . . . do you feel it?” he said, studying the air as if a change was taking place, “a chill wind blows from the East. Soon, your people shall know what we have known for millennia. Aenya turns slowly . . . but it does turn . . . and as the world changes so does the land, so will your lands be as ours, so does the light become the dark. Alas, when the darkening comes, that which we seek shall be no more.”

The red bearded face, and the gleaming black blades, and the rushing of the Potamis, it all became distant and unfocused, and Xandr wet his fingers into the fresh cavity in his breast, lifting the blood to his eyes. Each breath stabbed at him, a terrible reminder of life, and he felt himself plummet and the ground wheel about him.

“I could have killed you at any instant. But I am a connoisseur of torment, and I find it more satisfying to first crush the spirit. Idealism is, after all, so nauseating.”

Closing his fist, the projection of Aenya extinguished like a candle-flame, and his attention turned to the sword. “ . . . I have never seen its equal—a sword that cuts through solid rock—and the blade, unscathed, even against my sabers! An old relic, no doubt, from the age of the Zo. Perhaps this little duel was not completely fruitless.”

With all the might of his four legs, the Ravager of Kingdoms could not remove the sword. Emmaxis remained as though moored to the earth and at some length sank further into the stone. “It mocks me!” Nessus grumbled, the skull-face mirroring the convex of his daemonic eyes. “And this hilt, it differs somehow from before . . . What sorcery is this?”

As the blood ebbed from his body, Xandr could do nothing but watch the centaur curse and struggle. In time, the Chariot of Solos crept behind the greater moon, and the sky dulled to sullen shades of violet, and Nessus was no more. All the young monk knew was that the centaur had been and now was not.

Thought and understanding navigated dark regions in his mind. There was no sensation beyond the cold permeating his membranes without the comfort of a shudder. Resolved to this state, he welcomed the Taker’s embrace and the absence of being that lifted all pain.

But it did not come.

Oh Alashiya . . . What glory is in this? Was I not to be Batal? Has my life been a lie?

Moons mingled amid deities and stars drew ellipses in the sky. Leaves curled and twirled off sinewy stems, framing him in earthen colors. Seedlings broke through the soil and ilms pillowed under his limbs. A screech rent the abyss, and looking again toward heaven, he spied upon the great sword once more, its ghoulish face ever grinning, and sitting upon it now was a phoenix with feathers of orange, white, and blue. It was the icon from the mural, resonating with power, gravitating cords of fate and matter about its beak. Planes and galaxies swirled in the phoenix’s eyes, and as it looked into him, all knowing, the black came down and he was gone.

Go to Ages of AenyaChapter 1: A Compass for Miseries