He-Man, Jesus, and The Never Ending Story

I was a lot like Bastian, the main character in The Never Ending Story, when I was ten. My imagination was so powerful it sometimes frightened me. I could almost see and hear my daydreams. My family and teachers thought I was an odd kid who needed help. They complained I was always “in another world” and they were right. Even my grades suffered because of it. I remember having detention at least three times a week because I simply was unable to divert my mind to what we were studying. I forgot my homework, my books, my pencils, and the result was always detention. Even in high school, people assumed I was a drug addict. They didn’t know my secret, that I didn’t need drugs to get high. For most of my childhood, I was told this was a bad thing I had to grow out of, and I tried. Eventually, I succumbed to the jaded outlook of adult life. The world of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe I once so adored transformed in my eyes into a crass, half hour toy commercial. By studying the mechanics of fiction, the curtain was drawn back from the Wizard of Oz, and I discovered how my secret world was made up of writing techniques and plot devices. I knew all the magicians’ tricks and so the magic died. I am thirty-seven today, and the more I look back on my childhood, the more I cherish that other world. I now know that a vivid imagination is a gift not to be wasted. As a writer, I sometimes feel I’ve given up imagination for skill, and I often find myself wishing I could go back. Where? For every child, it goes by a different name, but for Michael Ende, the German author of The Never Ending Story, that world is Fantastica.

If The Never Ending Story is about anything, it’s the importance of imagination. Without it, life is gray and dull and meaningless, as the adult world must have seemed to Ende, to Bastian, and to me. The Nothing, an absolute void that can only be described as “making you feel as if you are blind” threatens Fantastica’s existence, a perfect metaphor for a world without imagination. But what’s truly remarkable is that, in a philosophical sense, Ende’s story deals with reality, because he never regards his characters as anything but fictional. Unlike many inferior pieces of meta-fiction, the characters here don’t need to “step out of the book”. Ende satisfies himself with the knowledge that imaginary characters are simply that, imaginary, but in that self same way, the life of those characters is a thing we enable in our minds. And here’s where the deep part comes in, because if you think about it, how different is memory from imagination? Though He-Man may have only been imaginary, his influence in my life exceeds every real person I’ve ever known. He taught me to be wise, brave, and compassionate. Much like Jesus, He-Man exists solely in people’s minds and hearts, yet his value cannot be overstated. Ende goes beyond the movie when he talks about imaginary things becoming “lies” in the real world. When the author describes how these imaginary “lies” are used to manipulate people, my mind turns to fundamentalism, to how religion is taught in a literal sense, which always has negative results (just look at the violence that came about after the recent Mohammed YouTube video). But if the products of our minds are seen for what they are, they take on their own reality, which can only benefit mankind. After all, who ever killed someone in the name of Superman?

But the movie by the same name, loved by so many, tells only one third of the novel, and if you never bother with the book, you’ll be missing out on a lot. As the film closes, a voice over states, “And Bastian had many more adventures, but that is another story . . .” which made it seem that the rest was superfluous. I thought that too, until I got deeper into the story. Since the world of Fantastica is made of human wishes, the second act deals with wishes, but Ende does not limit himself to the strict English definition, aka Aladdin, but with all human desire. When Bastian enters the world of Fantastica, he is given AURYN, a magical amulet which grants him the power to make anything happen, but with each wish he loses a part of his memory and a part of his identity. What Ende manages to convey with this plot device is nothing short of brilliant. On the surface, The Never Ending Story is children’s fare, but on a much deeper level, the land of Fantastica with its strange and magical inhabitants serves as a continuing metaphor for the many facets of human desire, from simple wants like strength and security to the need to be admired, respected, and even feared. Like many other books in the genre, The Never Ending Story explores themes of identity and “absolute power corrupting absolutely” but Ende works it into his story effortlessly and with deep insight. His one human character, Bastian, happens to be, not incidentally, the only fully fleshed three dimensional character, and his transformation from innocent child to jaded adult is conveyed with subtle mastery. 

To a child, The Never Ending Story is a fun adventure, but to an adult, it can be so much more. The story is continually inventive and the writing decent (perhaps a better translation from the German is needed) but what truly transcends the genre is the novel’s exploration of philosophical ideas. The very best authors know how to tell a story in multiple levels, the basic plot existing on the surface whereas on a deeper level, one can find insight into his or her very real life. It is truly a rare thing to find such a story, which is why this now takes the second spot, right below T.H. White’s The Once and Future King as my favorite fantasy novel of all time.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I can say I have been to Fantastica. Have you? 

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 10

Chapter 10
Demons of the Deep
Grayquid are inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Deep Ones

All eyes fixed on the beams not three feet overhead. A latticework of sunlight and shadow played over their terror stricken faces. The men moved frantically in the narrow quarters below, watching, waiting, listening. Little noise came from the upper decks, as the forsaken oarsmen did not have armor or shields or spears, only the swords at their sides, which, if used at all, none in the shadows could guess. Shortly, the sound of panic echoed onto tranquil waters and died away. Where the slaughtered were fallen, human shapes blocked the light that spilled from between the beams, deepening the darkness in the bowels of the ship.

The walls of the lower deck pushed on the survivors, too narrow a space for thirty-one oarsmen, its captain and three passengers. Through the seams of the outer hull, the air came thinly, fouled by the brine of the sea and the stench of sweat. The most cowardly among them snatched at breath like netted fish. Despite knowing war and death, when faced against something so ravenous and supernatural, their most primal fears had taken hold. And then the blood poured from between the timbers, bathing them in the gore of their comrades as if in some perverse ritual. Meridius cursed the shipbuilders for not better waxing the upper deck. When the blood turned to drips, the roof groaned and bulged under inhuman feet, followed by a scratching sound. Half-seen claws were raking and raking, splintering the beams. 
Meridius moved under the light. The wound in his neck looked to have worsened despite their healing efforts, the purple flesh spreading from beneath his bandages. And he was pale, so pale, some feared a drowned had materialized in their midst.
“My wife and daughter live in Campania,” he began, out of nowhere. “She, my wife, has dark hair like a raven’s wing that falls in curls and always smells of pine. It is on a small lot that I own, in the plains of Campania. We grow potatoes.” He smiled weakly. “My little one is nearly two and just learning to speak. She can say ‘up’ and ‘down’. But, who knows what new words she’s learned since last I saw them? It’s been more than a month . . .
“Last night, I dreamt that my wife was washing beside the porch where the bougainvillea grows. She looked at me, smiled, beautiful as I remember. White sheets hung from the clothespins, but as I stepped closer to embrace her, the sheet she pulled from the basin, I saw that it was red, all red as blood.”
Cambses, who listened across the space of three men, pushed his way toward him. “What good is telling us this? Save your remembrances for later, the bawdy bits about your wife, for when we feast in the high halls of Thetis.”
“Aye, Cambses, very well that I should,” Meridius answered, “but if I don’t return, who amongst you will go to Campania, to seek out my waiting wife and child and tell them of my fate? It is not marked, you know, and there are no paved roads leading to it. But if you look with a will to find it, you shall.”
“You are not the only man here with those in waiting,” Cambses replied grimly. “And if none of us survive, none will know our fate.”
“Quite right,” Meridius somberly replied.
A woman sounded, her voice as uplifting as a nymph song, for the men longed for the comforts of their wives and lovers. “I will go to Meridius’ family.” It was Thelana. “I am Ilmarin, and do not know your customs, but in our country we do not fear Death as you; if he comes, so be it; we are born again in the Goddess. But now is the time for action. Let us rise up and meet our doom with bravado!”
At that, a plank cracked between them, and through the open space a milky hand groped for someone’s hair. “We need a plan!” Cambses exclaimed. “We cannot simply run out blindly.”
“Sir, there is the Hellenic fire,” came an answer, from a short, gray-bearded man.
“The Hellenic fire? Are you mad, Archimedes? We’ll burn down the ship.”
“What is this Hellenic fire?” asked Xandr.
“It is a wicked concoction,” Cambses replied, “an alchemists’ brew; it burns like kerosene, only worse, much worse. Its flames can scarcely be put out. Just a thimbleful may turn a house to ash. There are times I wish it’d been left to the denizens of hell where it belongs. But still, we carry it aboard, to ignite enemy ships.”
Xandr was quick to reply, “If we die by fire, that is our choice—better than be ripped apart by those fiends. Who agrees, say ‘aye’.”
As none wished to await Death trembling in the cold and in the dark, the chorus of approval was clear. But it was Thelana whose voice rang again above the clamor. “Wait, we cannot march out, one by one, as sheep to the slaughter. We’ll need to startle them.”
“Startle them?” a question sprang, “they are soulless fiends, what could startle them?”
“I have a plan,” she said. “But I will need one other, someone who knows to work this Hellenic fire.”
“I will do it,” said Meridius without hesitation.
“Then what would you have me say to your wife and daughter,” she asked, “should I need to meet them?”
He smiled. “When the moment is certain, I will tell you.”
Without warning, more of the planks crumbled about them, and hooked hands sprouted down like demonic weeds.
“Wait,” Cambses interrupted, facing the Ilmarin woman, “you will need armor. Nabonus died with his breast unshielded.”
“Your armor won’t fit me,” she replied with a grin, “and besides, when I’m naked, I’m invincible.” She then turned to Emma, who stood like a long shadow at her side. “Enchant me.”
 Across the flat double doors of the Mare Nostrum’s cargo hold, which served as both stable and storage for rations, citrus and water, there was an iron latch with a simple loop and hook. Normally, the cargo hold was not connected with the crewman’s quarters, but with some effort, a passage was made. Rather than be unhooked, the latch burst from the wood to which it was nailed, and to the surprise of the gray creatures skulking and disemboweling and devouring, a lone raven fluttered skyward, followed by a toffee hued mare. Mounted atop the shaken but intrepid beast was Thelana, the jade and gold of her bow glittering in the faint sun. Following from this compartment was Meridius, Cambses, Xandr, and a contingent of warriors. Without pause, the grayquid abandoned their feast to pounce, letting bodies and parts of bodies slip quietly to the sea.
A simple, unmarked pot was in Meridius’ hands. No shield or spear was on him, only the gladius at his waist. As he ran across the uneven flooring toward the grayquid, Meridius uncorked his flask. Clear liquid spilled in globs about his feet and jerkin as the cork rolled into the sea. Old Archimedes, all the while, handed an arrow with a flaming tip to the mounted archer. Pulling the arrow to her ear, its flame flickering in the breeze, she aimed for she knew not what. Meridius then did what none could have imagined, a last moment modification; turning the flask over, he emptied the fluid down his own throat and let it wash over his lips and trickle from his clothing.
Meridius. Thelana mouthed the words, but could not speak. No . . .
The grayquid, being mindless killers, did not heed the other men, but piled atop the single being who dared to charge into their midst. As they tore at him, he turned peacefully to Thelana, saying, “Tell my family it was a good adventure.”
Moisture pooled about Thelana’s eye, smearing her aim, and for a moment she feared missing her mark, but she did not fail him. Her fingers loosened and the taut string snapped. Whether those fingers were the death of him, or the grayquid pulling out his spine, she did not know, but the flaming point struck Meridius squarely in his breastplate and instantly the fire burst from his vestments like a furnace beneath his sternum. The whole of the man became fire. Even the grayquid, in all their uncanny swiftness, were unable to escape. It engulfed them. Other grayquid leapt over their disintegrating brethren. But Thelana slowed their onslaught. The fire of her arrows caught scent of the Hellenic liquid below, erupting along the floorboards, up to their lower extremities.
But her quick timed shots were unable to avail the whole crew. Fires streamed along the beams of the groaning ship. Cambses, disregarding the imminent peril, let out a cry of battle, and pushed against the gray mob with his long oval shield. Claws glanced off his mail and toad-like feet hopped and raked at the crest of his helmet, but he kept a protective stance, and brandishing his gleaming gladius, hacked at their soft sinews, finding that their heads and limbs rolled from his blade with ease. The oarsmen, likewise, stood ground, forming a wall of shields across the narrow portion of the bow, but the lashing webbed-fingers found gaps in their defenses as the ship swayed, and the less steady fell away with their throats missing, slipping and writhing.  
The fire continued to rage and the beams began to blacken. All the while, a high-cresting wave started along the starboard bow, as on the port side, a pillar came quickly from a great rectangular pedestal, threatening to smash the pentaconter to pieces. Leaping down to mid-deck, Xandr grabbed an oar to brace the ship, as grayquid descended upon him, their claws inching for his throat. He caught the slippery wrists in his hands, but the pungent odor was overwhelming. Fighting to maintain consciousness, he twisted away, his last meal gushing from his lips to the waves. At last, there was respite, in the form of a gust of fresh sea air. With a single, desperate gasp, he tugged at the grayquid’s loose limbs with all his enduring might. The lank arms dangled lifelessly against its sides, but it did not feel pain, and lurched forward once more, snapping at him with jagged teeth. In shock and horror, Xandr toppled over the railing, hard against the long oars. Icy waves licked his bruised ribs, and down the grayquid followed, many more of them, clawing their way from oar to oar. But the throbbing in his side gave birth to an idea. He wrenched an oar free of its porthole and the nearest of the monsters paused, having lost a step in its path, and like a giant with a tremendous mace Xandr hoisted the broken shaft and knocked the creature beneath the briny waters.
A sound like thunder turned every eye away. Waves crashed, filling the ship with white, extinguishing every trace of flame. The whole of the Mare Nostrum shuddered against the pedestal, tilting onto its side, throwing every man and creature against the rails, and more than a few overboard. Thelana slid across the beams with the others, nearly falling from her mare and from the ship, but Arrow dug its hooves into the deck as she coiled her fingers about its mane. Xandr caught himself, the oars under his knees, the frothy current rolling overhead. He found his footing again, pushing off the marble that had hit, but not penetrated the hull, and made his way up, hand-over-hand.
As the white waters washed across the bow and receded, the Mare Nostrum righted itself, and where the flames had been was only ash. Snapping her bow into a sword, Thelana kicked at her mare and charged. Mist flared from Arrow’s nostrils and the glimmer of terror in its eyes darkened to bold ferocity. Together, horse and rider dashed between the hooking claws, across the swaying upper deck, her blade swiping clean through whatever mesh of scales and cartilage kept the grayquid’s heads attached. Her charge came up short, as the flooring vanished ahead of them, but there she spotted her lover, clinging from the port bow.
Clasping his arm to the elbow, she caught him, and he came up with his fifteen-feet of oar. Only his massive arms could handle such a thing, albeit clumsily, for he was wise in the use of ungainly things. In the narrow passage the grayquid lunged at him but did not reach. The oar splintered with a WHOOSH and CRACK, swatting them back to the depths, and when the paddle broke away, the makeshift weapon became a spear in his hands, with which to impale their lean bodies. Cambses and his men, having overcome their dread, rushed to aid him, their swords cutting effortlessly through the dead flesh.
When the battle was done and the grayquid were but husks of mucus, the crew counted their dead. Not even ashes could be found of Meridius, but the three bodies that remained were bandaged and tossed into the sea, to Sargon, with all the rites accorded them.
It was during the last ceremony that it appeared, white as a sail in the mists, casting a shadow over everything in sight. The whole structure was enmeshed in vines, its three walls sloping inwardly to a flattened point, forming a low, wide pyramid. The sea beat against the ancient stones and clouds of soot swirled in a fury at its peak like a volcano. A great flight of steps protruded from it like a man’s nose, ascending to a broad archway, but the stairway was incomplete, having weathered to ruin. Three obelisks stood adjacent to the pyramid and evidence of others could be seen beneath the surf, great toppled stones and bronze ribbing that threatened to rip the dwarfed ship to pieces. A fourth obelisk, having collapsed against the pyramid, formed a breach in the wall where the water gushed and foamed violently against the debris.
Cambses straightened at the sight of it, looking weary but triumphant. “At last!” he said. “The Temple of Sargon!”

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 9

Chapter 9
Mist rolled about the domed edifice, caressing the corroded stone, entwining the Mare Nostrum as though something living, coiling about the tall pillars and the oars. The fluted columns reflected in the ebbing water like the tendrils of some monstrous cephalopod waiting to greet the wary sailors.
Cambses donned his helmet, its horsehair crest bristling like flame. With little cheer, he led ten of his best to the topmost step of the library, the plank groaning and shuddering under the weight of their oval shields and bronze-tipped spears. Xandr followed in nothing but his kilt and sandals, with his sword at his back, as did Emma behind him, drifting like a wraith, and sure-footed and bare-footed Thelana, her quiver at the shoulder and bow firmly in hand.    
The Hedonian raised a pair of fingers, and without word, the naval warriors spread across the steps, their shields half-masking their front. Complementing their formation, Thelana nocked an arrow in her bow, scanning the impenetrable haze for targets. Only the Batal stood tall, somber and unwavering.
Sunlight penetrated the cracked dome like a lance and a cloud of vapors drifted from the keystone like a silk to reveal the words etched in stone across the pediment: EX-LIBRIS. Cambses turned to Thelana, as if to confirm her assertion. “It means books, I think, in the old tongue.” Emma’s eyes reeled. She wondered whether any of the brutes had ever visited a place of learning, or even knew to read.
Passing between the pillars, under the great shadow of the library, Xandr could sense the growing unease in the others. The tale of lost Hedonia was known within trading distance of the Empire.
“Come, men!” Cambses voice resonated powerfully. “There is more to fear from the living than from corpses that jitter like marionettes.” And with that he motioned them beyond the heavy black doors of wood and bronze, which opened into a dim recess.
The walls vanished in the shadows, the boundaries of the chamber remaining in obscurity. Silhouettes hinted at ornate moldings rimming unseen balconies. A garish light washed over the center of the library from the crack in the dome high high above, which gave the sense of untold vastness. The air was stagnant and felt—not cold—but devoid of warmth. Dust the thickness of snowflakes spun in the air as if caught by some spider’s invisible thread. And there was the unmistakable stench of rot hanging over all. 
Emma’s voice disturbed the silence, “This is all wrong,” she said. “The lines are all backwards; it’s like giving birth in reverse.”
No one, not even Xandr, had any idea what she meant, nor did anyone wish to know. Cambses noted her trance like state and grumbled. As if his men weren’t spooked enough! “Hey, Batal, keep that witch of yours quiet!”
Xandr started to speak on her behalf, but decided it better to hold his tongue.
Moving further inward, they found what was expected, and that was comforting. Passageways of books on marble shelving like towering colonnades, tomes set higher than the tallest man could reach. Despite adequate storage, amorphous mounds of papyrus lay scattered about the marble floor, while other books were stacked with apparent intention into bizarre, towering forms, enough to bury passersby should it topple. But the large granite slab directly beneath the dome was what gave the visitors pause. Behind a desk with decorative Ionic curves, in a chair like a throne of thick cedar and blood-red velvet, a corpse glowed luridly where a beam of sunlight touched it. The corpse wore a small black hat, and its head lay, as if resting, against an open tome. As if stricken dead while writing, the corpse’ bone-fingers still held to a peacock-feathered quill, leaving a crooked line upon the page.
“He was a publican, in life,” Cambses murmured.
“What’s that?” asked Emma. “And how do you know?”
“Look, you can tell by his hat. Only publicans wear them. They decided which books went into the library and which were unsuited for the public. In truth, I know little of such matters.” 
“It looks like he died writing,” said Thelana.
“You mean he drowned writing,” Cambses corrected, making her realize the absurdity of her statement.
And yet, there it was, the ink running long against the yellowing paper. Xandr joined the others about the desk, brazenly tearing the tome from under the corpse. The crooked line formed a single word: REPENT, with the last letter drawn to the edge of the page in a bubbling inkblot which had grown from under the tip of the quill.
“Repent,” Cambses intoned. “For what?”
“Wait.” It was the voice of Meridius. “I know–knew–this man. Here lies the body of Ptolemns! I had many a chance to speak with him.” He gnawed on his fist, terror and despair growing in his eyes. “Where are your jests now, my friend? Where the laughter that so oft rang from those merry lips?”
“I knew of him,” Cambses replied. “They said he was a philosopher, a critic of the Empire. He believed we had become a society of greed, that we were too focused on wealth and pleasure.” The captain’s disdain for the man and his beliefs was evident in his tone.
“He predicted,” Meridius continued approvingly, “that doom would come to the city, and to the Empire, due to its waywardness. Even the word, hedonistic, has come to mean, in other kingdoms, a life of waste, of decadence.”
Emma came forth, daring to speak. “What was he reading?” Xandr passed the book to her. It was a collection of poetry. On the page where Ptolemns had written, the stanza read:
I looked out across the waters
and there came Tsunamis
mightiest of the depth’s demons
that with flailing arms,
shook the seas,
and split beams of ships,
and made cities fall
Memoir of Hedonian Oarsman
“Tsunamis,” she whispered to herself, letting the book slip back to the desk.
Xandr looked into her dark eyes, seeing more than she wished to reveal. “What is it, Emma?”
“Just a poem,” she replied. “Words on paper.”
“Alright!” Cambses cried suddenly. “No reason to tally longer. Spread out; search this ruin. There may yet be survivors.”
As the men scampered cautiously about, Emma approached the shelves with wonderment. “Have you ever seen such a collection? Here is all the knowledge of the world! I could spend . . . a lifetime here. We must seek out what is of importance, carry what we can onboard . . .”
“We take nothing,” Cambses retorted. “We came here for one thing and one thing only.”
Thelana stumbled across a book that had fallen to the floor. She lifted it, flipping to a random page:
In the 333rd year of the Suleimani Dynasty, Empress Tetẻ expanded the Empire to include the northern provinces, of what is today known as the Massad Province, having conquered and subdued the primitive mountain peoples of the Assanti and the Verber tribes, and the even more primitive Argolith, after only one month of sieges.
There was more history, detailing the glorious conversion of the primitive peoples to the religion of Hedonia, as directed by the glorious Empress Tetẻ, but Thelana was too disgusted to read further. “You want to save this self-righteous drivel?” she asked Emma.
“It’s not all drivel, Thelana,” she answered. “Look, a book discussing the writer and his struggle with his craft.”
A sentence can play and play until it becomes madness. This is the burden of the writer. He does not tell the story; the story tells him.
“Writing about writing?” she replied. “How ridiculous! Besides, everybody knows writers are weak and effeminate. What do they know of struggle? Let them forage for food in the wilderness! Then they’d know the meaning of struggle.”
Nabonus returned at last with a small contingent of men. “We checked the upper levels, Cambses, but found no one alive.”
“Good. Return to the Mare Nostrum and bring me a flint and a tinder box.”
“What do you intend to do with that?” asked Emma.
“Burn the place. There are enough books here to set a mighty blaze.”
“You’re mad!” she wailed. “This is the culmination of all your history; the fabric of your society is here, preserved on each page, all its discovery–”
“I am not a savage,” he replied coolly. “I know the value of this place. But as we cannot bring these books to Thetis; we must not allow the knowledge to pass into foreign hands.”
“You’re a greater fool than I thought! This knowledge belongs to all men, not only to citizens of Hedonia.”
“No, witch, this knowledge was paid by the blood of countless citizens. No one else has any right to it!”
“I won’t let you!” she scoffed.
Cambses turned, at last, to Xandr. “I thought I told you to control your wench!”
The Batal stepped between them. “She is not my wench, nor my witch, and I can no longer control her as you. But should you put a hand on her–”
His threat was cut short as a scream resonated from the desk of Ptolemns. It was Meridius, who had remained behind to study the remains of his old friend. He was reeling backward, wrestling against the quite animated corpse of the publican, the quill pen inked with the blood spouting like a fountain from the oarsman’s neck. The once articulate orator, writer, and poet, had lost, in Death, its capacity for argument, but words still managed to escape from some part of its frame.
“BURY ME!” it said, it asked, again and again. 
Xandr was the first to action, unleashing Emmaxis in a flurry of silver. But the sword felt unusually weighted in Xandr’s arms; it pulled toward the ground like a battleaxe, ringing against the marble tile. Cutting through the rotted flesh was like sinking his sword into a beehive, slow and sticky, not like the effortless severing of living tissue. Nonetheless, the thing that had been Ptolemns lost its hat, with its head soon following to the floor.
“Meridius,” he asked. “Are you all right?”     
He had already removed the quill from his neck, though the collar of his leather jerkin was darkened with blood. “I did not expect that from an old friend,” he stammered, forcing a smile through a sweat drenched jaw.
Jolting backward, his spear over the shoulder, the Hedonian signaled to one of the other men. “Get him back to the ship!”
But even then they could see it, things that should not have been, shambling silhouettes from beyond the bookcases. Since they were drowned, their bodies were more slowly decayed, and thus more horribly preserved in varied stages of rot. Skin hung from gaping wounds made by barbed teeth; pink flesh flowered grotesquely along half-devoured limbs; swollen organs dangled along the decorative tile leaving slippery trails of gore. Whole sections of body were missing for some, and it seemed hardly possible that the shambling bipeds could keep from collapsing in on themselves. But reason, as the living trespassers were now discovering, gave quickly way to the irrationality of terror.
Cambses was familiar with battle in its most gruesome guise, and yet, the look of sanity receded from his whitening face as though sanity were a reflection of skin tone. “By the gods!” he bellowed. “Will horrors never cease? Back to the Nostrum!”  
Some of the oarsmen tossed their spears upon instinct, but most, with their quivering limbs, missed their mark. Of those well-placed throws, the steady advance of the smitten did not slow, nor did the drowned bother removing the shafts from their impaled bodies, but left them as new additions to their non-living forms. Thelana drew an arrow to her ear. The point struck the forehead, and the sound of it, like a bone rattle, raised the small hairs of her skin.
“BURY ME!” the words came, over and over, from many distinct voices.
Everyone fled, save for Emma, and Xandr who pulled at her arm as though she were cemented to the earth. He noticed she was muttering, so quietly as if to her own ears. “We cannot bury you,” she was saying, “the city is flooded, but we can release your spirits in the old way, by smoke, through fire.”
“Come on, Emma!” he cried. “We haven’t the time!”
“But they’re suffering! Can’t you feel it?”
The drowned were nearly upon them and as he had no time to argue, he swept her into his arms and carried her out of the library.
Volleys of flaming arrows were sent into the Ex-Libris, though none could tell which lit the fires that set the structure ablaze. The flames parted the fog enough so that the Mare Nostrum could be navigated further into the interior of the city. As he watched the flames rise up, Cambses lamented, “Tall Hedonia, jewel of the world . . . what centuries’ wisdom was lost with you, and what dark epochs once trod lay before us!”
As there was not a gust to be felt in any direction, and the waters were still as a bog, Cambses ordered his men to the oars. They obeyed despite much grumbling and gossiping. Only one was absent. Though his neck was heavily bandaged, the blood had flowed excessively from the pen wound, so Meridius remained below, trembling, pale, and sweaty, as though afflicted with sudden fever.
After some strange time, which could not be determined without sun or moons, the bands of white thinned out, revealing much of what had been hidden. And of the fog the oarsmen once cursed, they immediately wished would return. It was as if Nature, in her wisdom, had blanketed the city in a shroud woven from air and water, so that no man might look upon such horrors. Now the shroud was removed. Bodies plagued the eye, refusing to sink, drifting along distant avenues; others gathered on street corners like rafts of flesh for maggots, the air blackened by flies. Occasionally, bodies would entangle the gently dipping oars, and the men would curse and blaspheme the gods.
The white rolled low over the streets. Domed and vaulted temples were overwrought with seaweed and green glowing plankton, passing from view like galleys adrift in the mist. Columns of marble reached up to nothing, and rings of granite, ripped by vines, lay submerged in the silvery stillness. Statuary of forgotten men stared outwardly with smiles betraying their state of degradation, brine eroding their once gleaming shoulders, their stone lips and stone ears homes for skittering crab mites and lichen. In the far reaches of doomed Hedonia, magnificent monuments emerged from beneath distant veils of fog and were swallowed up again, passing in and out of view like lucid bits of memory, like a dream of some great empire.
A bronze statue passed into view, green with lichen, of a warrior in full Hedonian armor. “Alas, who remembers mighty Damakles?” said Cambses with a sigh, “who slew a hundred merquid with his bare hands? Oh, how fleeting is all things, how temporal the world and every proud thing in it!”
Overhearing, Emma accosted him. “I misunderstood you,” she said. “I figured you for a dumb brute. Truly, you love your country.”
He turned to her, his face a solemn mask. “Madam, I am no mercenary. A man does not risk life as I, for a nation he does not love. Burning the library was akin to slaying my own child. But I would readily do so, before letting my children into captivity.”
Her eyes settled uneasily over the rail. Aspects of architecture rose from beneath the rippling surface, startling in contrast: great colonnades without walls or roof, the upper seating of an amphitheater, a coliseum turned to rubble. “I suppose we did not need the horses.”
“We expected the sea would have receded by now.”
“The world is ever changing,” she murmured. “Our lives are too brief to see things as they are. If we could live for millennia, as the Ancients did, mountains would race before us, and the seas and continents change shape, as they did after the Great Cataclysm.”
“For this reason I do not devote myself to personal matters, but to that which benefits the Empire, which may last for untold eons.”
“Your empire has already been lost, with the shifting of the sea.”
“Ah yes,” he said, “but this is our seamare nostrum, and the kingdom that controls it controls the world.”
“Once, bodies of water called oceans covered this planet. The Dead Zones was an ocean that would make your sea look like a fish pond. Enya does not care for your religion or your politics; it simply is, and will be long after we’re gone.”
“Until then,” he replied, “I will fight for what is mine, with my dying breath.”
Over the bronze ram of the Mare Nostrum the Batal stood with troubled a brow.
Thelana longed to embrace him, her heart aching without knowing when she could again do so. “What troubles you?” she asked. “Or do you hate ships as much as I?”
“Emmaxis did little against that animated corpse in the library,” he replied. “I’ve seen it cut through the iron-hard scales of a dragon, split the heart of a giant made up of flesh and steel, but never has it felt so heavy, so sluggish against mine enemy.”
“It wasn’t alive,” she replied. “Emmaxis thirsts blood, living flesh. The body of that poet; it was not living.”
“I know, Thelana, but why does the sword thirst? It is a piece of metal, finely wrought, but nothing more. It has no tongue to taste or throat to swallow, no stomach with which to hunger.”
“Do not ask so many questions, my love, accept it as a gift of the Goddess.”
“I do trust in Alashiya, but–”
A scream like Xandr had never heard resonated from middeck, and the sound of crashing waves. Over the hull, a rowing bench and an oar were drenched in blood, its oarsman gone. In seconds, the forty-eight remaining sailors abandoned their positions, milling in a panic about the top deck.
“He’s gone!” Nabonus was shouting. “Gone!”
Cambses threw one hand to the pommel of his gladius, sprinting across the deck. Where the oarsman had been, a trio of claw marks marred the blood stained wood. “I had feared this,” he muttered to himself.
Xandr moved quickly to his side. “You had feared . . . what, Cambses?”
“Did you see the wounds of those corpses in the library?” came the answer. “Did you truly believe fish could do such things? There are worse things here than drowned men. Older spirits, more angry, more terrible . . .”
“Cambses!” Xandr cried. “What have you not told us? What are you hiding?”
“Frazetta lied to you,” the Hedonian replied, resignation in his voice, and already as he said this, webbed-fingers were reaching over the bow, milky-white, with gray scales, so thin and gelatinous as to be nearly transparent. Eyeing the thing that came climbing onto the vessel, Cambses blood went cold, his palm shuddering at the hilt, “some men didreturn from the previous expeditions, but they were insane, completely insane, gibbering on about . . . impossible things . . .”
“What things!” Xandr demanded, drawing Emmaxis from its sheath.
“First they spoke of corpses that walked, but they also spoke of merquid, of, dead merquid. They called them the Gray Ones. Grayquid, they called them.”
As if summoned by its name, the gaunt creature leapt onto the deck with unnatural agility, its legs frog-like. Its face was broad and flat and finned, but it was wrong somehow; its flesh was a most unnatural hue between white and clear, and was slick with mucus. The mouth was implausibly broad, with painfully barbed teeth, and its eyes were cold, clear, lifeless. Without the slow, awkward gait of the human drowned, the grayquid leapt again. Too close to use his spear, Nabonus fumbled for the gladius at his hip, but his face contorted strangely, and even from ten paces the onlookers could tell that something was choking him, like hands about his throat, a pungent odor emanating from the grayquid like rotted fish multiplied a thousand fold. Paralyzed by his absence of breath, Nabonus stumbled and the slimy creature pounced, eviscerating him, digging through the man’s entrails with its great hooked fingers as if in search of some digested morsel. Organs were tossed across the deck and blood spilled between the beams to the lower decks where the horses in the stables neighed with distress.
Before any of the crew could react, more gray-white hands clawed up over the bow, too many to count.
“Get below deck!” Xandr shouted, and Cambses gave the nod of approval. All rushed to the narrow steps, trusting in the safety of the cedar roof. But of the forty-seven oarsmen left after Nabonus, only thirty managed the descent, to the illusion of safety.

Move on to Chapter 10 (if you dare!) 

The Princess Bride Review

2012-07-22-princessbride_bookI know, I know; it’s a movie. One of my all time favorites, actually, and in one poll I saw, no. 9 of all time. I would never have bought the book, however, if the movie had come first. It was published in 1973, two years before I was born, which doesn’t seem right because it feels so contemporary (the movie came out in 1987). For some odd reason, movie adaptations are horrible. It’s almost a rule, like video game movies or games based on movies. I suppose much is lost when transliterating one medium into another, except for the rare instances when a book is made into a great film, and The Princess Bride is definitely among those rare gems.

I stumbled upon The Princess Bride while looking for something upbeat to read. I am seriously getting tired of gloom and doom fiction these days. Where are the Ozs? The Neverlands? Anyway, The Princess Bride seemed like the perfect contrast to what I’ve been reading, something fun and lighthearted and optimistic, a fairy tale for adults. But how does it compare to the movie? Well if you haven’t seen the movie yet, all I can say is, your life is missing something. Go rent it now, or better yet, buy it. You’ll thank me. The book, of course, is better in the usual ways. Without time and budget constraints, authors can tell their stories in greater depth. When people ask me if I’d like to be a filmmaker, I tell them no because I prefer having that freedom also. If you’re familiar with the movie, you’ll be thrilled to learn more about Inigo Montoya and Fezzik, about their childhoods, and how they came to be partnered with Vizzini. It’s like watching a 3 hour extended cut and all of it counts. Of course, I expected that much. The surprise came from the twin narration from both the author, William Goldman, and the “original” author, S. Morgenstern. Confused? I sure was.

If you’re familiar with the movie, you’ll remember the meta-fiction technique employed by the filmmakers, where an elderly grandfather reads The Princess Bride to his sick grandson. It was a wonderful way to tell the story and I have never seen it used to such effect. Typically, meta-fiction feels like a cheap trick, and more often than not makes the movie feel inconsequential, like an “it was all just a dream” story. Not so with The Princess Bride. But what surprised me in the novel was the second layer of meta-fiction, where we not only learn about how William Goldman’s father read the story to him, but learn of the “original” Florinese author, S. Morgenstern. Goldman’s novel, we are told, is “the abridged version,” with all the boring parts taken out. Just as Edgar Rice Burroughs relates the tale of his “uncle,” John Carter, so Goldman is telling Morgenstern’s story. I was almost convinced this was true, until I checked Wikipedia to be sure. No such person as S. Morgenstern has ever existed. I was puzzled as to why Goldman would bother with the details of this fictitious author. His father as narrator would have sufficed. Throughout the book, Goldman discusses what he cut from the original and why. He describes Morgenstern as a political satirist, and claims that The Princess Bride was never intended as a romantic adventure. The parts he removed were the politics and the satire. But why even mention it? Anyone familiar with the film will tell you, there’s very little subtext. The Princess Bride wears its heart on its sleeve. What I, and I believe, many other people love about the movie is its unabashed romanticism. My theory is that Goldman felt he needed two narrators to make his sentimentality more palatable: the author himself, representing innocence, and his alter ego, Morgenstern, to appeal to more cynical readers. Sadly, it would seem, even in 1973 there were a lot of jaded people. But Goldman really doesn’t address his childhood, or innocence, by the end of the book, and after seeing how well the movie played out, all I can say is, I could have done without S. Morgenstern.

Overall, The Princess Bride is a quick, enjoyable read, but I can’t say it’s necessary if you’ve seen the movie, which works just as well. Ultimately, Goldman seems better suited to screenplays, which he’s made quite a successful career out of. My advice: rent or buy The Princess Bride, and if you want to know more about the story and its characters, by all means get the book.

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 8

Pentaconter leaving the port of Hedonia courtesy of Evan Kyrou

Chapter 8

Mare Nostrum
They sailed two days from the port of Thetis, along the Hedonian coast, toward what had been the most trafficked harbor in the world. None of the fifty oarsmen or their captain, Cambses, believed they would find any ships moored at its docks, unless manned with corpses. It took three days to reach Hedonia or what remained of it, but as the final day neared, the wind and waters became deathly still, a canopy of clouds obscured the constellations by which they navigated, and the air became wet and heavy. Fog unfurled over their ship, turning even the occasional reef into a danger. Tales of fishermen daring to venture too near the ruin already stretched across the land.
The ship was the Mare Nostrum, a pentaconter. Including the short drummer rhythmically directing the oars, there were fifty-one in their crew, a man for an oar, pentaconter meaning “the fifty”. Compared to the one hundred and seventy-oared trireme, it was small for a warship, having been selected for stealth, to enter the harbor unnoticed. Oars were used for battle, for sudden bursts of ramming speed and sudden evasive changes in direction, but now this maneuverability helped navigate the troubled waters. After retracting its folding mast into a compartment at the center of its hull, the fifty sailors manned their benches. With mechanical precision they tugged at the fifteen foot cedar planks extending from the apertures alongside the ship, and the pentaconter lurched forward. They were not slaves, but well trained professionals. Warships were as expensive as temples, taking years to build, and near impossible to control. An unskilled rower meant the difference between ramming or getting rammed. And each man was a fighter, with a scabbard at the waist.
Thelana was on deck, clutching the railing, surprised by the ship’s sudden quickness. Pentaconters were unusually designed, from what she knew of ships, as the upper deck, where she now stood, was mostly bare save for the compartment with its folded mast and sails. The lower deck consisted of their quarters, supply rooms, and stables. She imagined the interior could be rearranged to suit any number of containment needs. Between the upper and lower decks, down a short series of steps, the oarsmen situated themselves in the middeck, in niches set for rowing. It was an unenviable position, since the lower decks did not comprise of enough room for all, so the oarsmen were accustomed to remaining on their benches throughout the night, close enough to the sea to taste the salt air, being roused at times from their dreams by the cold sea-spray.
The cold air permeated the thin weave of her tunic, making her shudder. With nothing to see but fog, Thelana decided to go below. Down ramp, she came to a passage as broad as her shoulders, where she ducked into the six-by-six room. Emma lay on her fold-down bed, droning lazy notes on her flute. Xandr knelt beside a narrow shape swaddled in rags that, even slantwise, chaffed at the plank roof.
“Do you pray for us?” she asked.
He turned to her. “The Goddess rarely leaves my thoughts.”
“But,” she said, stepping closer, “you pray on the sword.”
“Thelana,” he replied, “I do not truly know anything about it, only that it seems to–” possess my destiny, he thought to himself, but instead remarked, “–thirst for blood.”
“What do you mean? It’s your sword. The sword of Batal.”
“I am Batal, Thelana; I have accepted it. But the people of Enya have made me so. In darkest times, men seek hope among champions. The sword has nothing to do with me. It just is.”
“It gives you strength.”
“But did you see how the brigands outside of Thetis reacted to it? They covered their ears, ran off stricken with dread.”
“Well, the sight of such a blade, in the hands of man like you–”
“No,” he interrupted. “It has never done that. All I know is that the monks kept it in a kind of altar. I retrieved it as a boy before the monastery was lost to the fire. QuasiI told me that it came in the talons of the Goddess, but, Alashiya has never mentioned it.” Gently, he pulled the cloth from the shaft, as if unraveling a mummy. There, the face stared at them, more ghastly than ever. “The sword mirrors my soul,” he said. “I see in it all the faces of the men I’ve killed. It is my burden to carry, and though I long to be free of all trappings, I must endure it.”
“Curious that this should be so,” Thelana replied, “that an Ilmarin should be chosen to shoulder such a thing, when even the slightest of clothing, for us, becomes wearisome.”
“I’ll tell you what I think,” said a vaguely familiar voice behind them. It was Cambses, fully armored in his battle-worn breastplate, bronze greaves and armbands, with his red-plumed helmet under his arm. “I’ve seen that monstrosity you lug everywhere. If we’re missing an oar, I’ll know where to come.” On his finger, Emma noticed an unusual ring of rough-cut granite, with an imprint of some kind—a royal seal.
Thelana spun on the ball of her heels. Her mind raced for a witty response, but all she could come up with was, “Oh? And what would you know?” Then she winced at her own dimwittedness. Verbal dueling was not her forte. 
“I know war, miss. It is my business. Wars I fought made the Empire. Now take this here,” he said, sliding his sword effortlessly from its scabbard. He twisted it in his palm, pommel toward her. The blade was of a highly polished silver-bronze composite, shorter than three feet and sharp enough to cut the stubble from her thighs, with a beautifully carved hilt made of bronze and gold. “Feel its weight, its balance,” he added, almost seductively, and to demonstrate, he let the weapon teeter on its hilt across his two-fingers. “Your sword, Batal, wounds, but my gladius kills.” The last word rolled off his tongue with relish.
“Kills men, merquid, perhaps,” answered Xandr. “But against dragons, it falls short.”
Cambses’ battle-hardened face broke into a laugh, as if he was uncertain whether the Batal was joking. “Against the likes of dragons, my friend, we all fall short.”
Emma, who lingered like a ghost in the room, shot up and broke between them. “Oh, what nonsense! What difference does any of this make? Boys and their toys!”
The Hedonian raised a finger in rebuttal, but shouts rang down from the top deck, giving them pause.
“Man over the starboard bow!”
The four rushed to the prow of the ship, where many of the oarsmen were gathered. “You there–” Cambses commanded, stammering for a name, “–Meridius! Who’s missing?”
“No one, sir,” answered Meridius, his eyes gone white and wild. “We’re all accounted for.”
Cambses peered over the railing as if the man’s response was irrelevant. “If nobody is missing, who’s in the water?”
There was a body, facedown, bobbing carelessly off the pentaconter’s prow, froth lapping gently about its unusually large torso.
“Do you think he could be . . .?” Meridius murmured.
Cambses cut him short, anger tinting his voice. “Don’t be a fool! That was over a year ago. This poor bastard sailed too far in—a reef probably claimed his dinghy in all this fog.”
Emma stepped forward, her robes and raven-hair exceedingly dark in the midst of the white vapors. “There is only one way to know for sure. Bring him up.”
“All right, bring him up!” Cambses echoed, and the men titled their oars flat, halting the procession of the pentaconter with uncanny suddenness. They went to work fastening a harness out of thick mooring rope and after some disorderly scrambling and nervous hands, the looped rope was lowered into the water. No one volunteered to jump from the ship, though it was common habit, and with the aid of those skilled in net casting, the corpse was brought up.
The sight did not alleviate their anxieties, and a number of men stepped away with wrists pressed to their nostrils, so offensive was its odor. The man, or what had been a man, had not been of larger proportion in life, as was presumed, but had only lately increased in girth from the water absorbed by its corpse. Its skin was pallid as could be, a green-tinted white, slick to the touch like the raw innards of an oyster. Dust sized crab mites skittered between its teeth and lolling tongue. But most perverse was the way in which its lidless eyes stared, like egg whites pitted with brine, only an impression of pupils noticeable beneath the recess of white, ocular orbs much like those of a hanged fish at market.
Cambses bent like a man defeated, his shoulders weary. “Give me some space, for gods’ sake!” he bellowed. With thumb and forefinger, he separated a hem from the white flesh, flesh both peeling from and becoming part of the disintegrating clothing. The vaguely discernible pattern, popular among Hedonian nobles, could not be denied. No sailor would take to the sea in such attire, he knew.
“This man has been long dead,” said Meridius.
“We should throw it back!” said another, appearing to have been made more ill by the sight, or stench, than the others.
There was a clamor of disagreement, even as their captain called for order. It was not as though they’d never seen the morbid renderings of Death. But with the continual torrent of pale fog overlapping, blinding, passing through them, and the newly discovered corpse that, to their experience, should have long littered the seabed floor, their soldierly resolve was beginning to splinter. Only Cambses remained unshaken.
Just as the men quieted down, Cambses face contorted with confused terror. Like brittle timbers, the corpse’ fingers enclosed about the captain’s throat. He stumbled backward, slipping upon the wet flooring, and it was quite a sight for the others, who had never known their captain to flinch even in the worst of battle. Before he could catch his breath, words escaped from the corpse’ dead lips; from what tongue formed the words, or what collapsed lungs drew air to give capacity for speech, no one knew. As strange a spectacle was this, so was the pattern of its speech.
The words escaped between its teeth, through its body cavities like air passing through a windpipe.   
Cambses wrestled awkwardly with the dead body, tearing the lifeless fingers from his throat. He groped for his gladius, as though he had forgotten where it was, and drawing the blade, severed the limb at the wrist. Seized with terror, he continued to hack at the corpse, removing its head. The oarsmen did not hesitate, but tossed the body and all its members back to the sea, where it was, at last, swallowed up by the waves.    
Emma came forward quietly, robes shifting in the subtle wind. “This place, all around us, I sense great sorrow. It permeates the air, the water . . . it is all thick with sorrow.”
Cambses turned to her, annoyance creasing his brow. He was not a man of feeling. “Do not offer us your thoughts unless asked.”
In the corner of the Mare Nostrum, away from the others, Thelana quivered and reached for Xandr’s palm. He clasped it without word. She was a creature of sensation, as all Ilmar, but here she felt nothing . . . the goddesses of the wind, the water, the sun; they did not speak to her, and she tucked at her all-too thin tunic more tightly. “We should not have returned,” she whispered. The Batal had no answer.
Pushing through the crowd, a man came hurriedly up to Cambses. He was smaller in frame than the others, and in his hands he held a compass and a makeshift looking glass. “Captain, there is a problem.”
“What is it now, Nabonus?” It seemed nothing would please the Hedonian today.
“We’ve been drifting, sir . . .,” he stumbled for words, “and there was a numerical error in my trigonometry . . .”
“Can you not speak plainly, man! Just tell me what it is or keep to yourself.”
“Right. It would appear, sir, that we should be there already.”
Cambses stared at him as though he would toss the navigator into the sea. “Where?” he shouted.
“In the city, captain. We should have hit land by now.”
As if affirming this statement, the whole of the pentaconter groaned from prow to stern. Cambses led the men away in a hurry, to the opposite ends of the ship, and where the fog grew thin a white slab materialized, hitting the hull, a Korinthian pillar fashioned in the flowery style of the famed architects of Korinth. It was the base of a wide flight of steps, and somewhere in the distance, disappearing and reappearing in the haze above, an ornate rotunda beckoned.
Meridius gasped. “We’ve breached the outer wall and didn’t even know!”
“I remember this . . .” Thelana murmured, finding it awkward that none of the Hedonian citizens recognized a landmark of their own capital. But then again, a thief had to know location details, routes for quick escape. “It’s the library.”
“This isn’t what we’ve come for,” Cambses replied.
Xandr spoke, his voice heavy but certain. “Perhaps not. But navigating the waterways inside the city will be dangerous. Let’s explore this ruin, and we may learn what to expect throughout the rest of the city, if it is, as we suspect, cursed.”

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 7

Chapter 7
Sex and Politics
Thelana walked like a caged battle cat about the beautiful surroundings of their bedchambers, with its twin-pillared arcades, chandelier oil lamps, and seashell shaped fountains. “Of all the spoiled brats!” she muttered. “If I ever step foot onto paved earth again, it will be too soon!”
“Hush!” It was Emma. “You’re going to get us executed!”
“Oh, honestly, I could take out these guards, and that runt Cambses, with my bare hands! The door’s not even locked, I should–”
“Patience,” Xandr interjected. “There are more things going on here than meet the eye.”
“I agree,” said Emma.
“Notice that she did not send us to the dungeons, when Cambses clearly wanted to? They did not even take our weapons. We are guests, not prisoners.”
Thelana continued to pace, bounding with uncontainable energy. “Guests that can’t leave?”
“We are being held for some higher purpose, it would seem,” said Emma. “Say what you will of the queen, but she is no dolt.”
Not listening, the girl from Ilmarinen rambled on, “I bet she sleeps on silk sheets every night! And sips from golden spoons!  . . . A new one for each meal! She thinks she’s so high and mighty, but in the jungle she’d be no more than prey, no more than bait. I even doubt–”
Boot steps and a creak of door hinges and she was silenced. A guard stood beneath the arch. He addressed Xandr directly, “the queen wishes to see you, alone.”
Xandr followed the guard a short while into a vast recess, bordered by the inner walls of the ziggurat, yet open to the sky above. At its center was a rectangular pool of greenish waters, framed by a concentric hedge maze of exotic flowers. Tending to the garden was Queen Frazetta herself, as bejeweled as upon her throne. Her dress draped to the ground from the hoops at her wrists, and shimmered in the sunlight between green and blue. Her substantial breasts and pointed nipples were left bare, framed between the sarong tied about her belly and a cascade of gold necklaces. Upon seeing Xandr, she moved to a near fountain and rinsed her hands, then turned to the guard. “Leave us.”
“But, your Highness, you would be unprotected.”
“I won’t ask twice,” she commanded, and the guard backed away.
Xandr remained silent and apprehensive.
She walked toward him, and as her dress shifted he noticed she was barefoot. She smiled. “You must forgive my rudeness in the throne room today . . . I must maintain a stalwart appearance, otherwise, the guards themselves might assassinate me.”
“You sound like a prisoner,” he replied.
“I am, in a way, a prisoner of politics. It is the lament of all rulers, I believe. But it is a life I have known since birth. Why do you think the kings of old built this magnificent garden? I could never step foot beyond these walls. The untouchables would tear me apart.” 
“It is a lovely hideaway. Such flowers are rarely found in the wild.”
“Do you like it? I am pleased. It is my only respite from my duties to the Empire. I come to be at peace with my thoughts. Come, walk with me.”
He followed her through a narrow passage lined by tall shrubbery, and as they were now hidden, he did not imagine anyone could stop him should he choose to strangle her. “You know,” she said, “Thetis was not always part of the Empire. This place was built centuries ago, when Hedonia was but a small city. When my great ancestor, Suppilumiuma the First, conquered it, its culture meshed with ours. They never lost their old ways though; they merely learned new ones.”
“Have you brought me here for a history lesson?”
“I’ve brought you here for two reasons that I shall shortly explain. But first, let me show you something.” She led him further, then pulled her long sleeve away to reveal a single flower, leaving him speechless. It was as large as a wild tulip, glistening with dew in the sunlight, its petals layered with oranges and violets, more vivid than any in the garden.
“By the Goddess!” he said softly, and motioned as if to touch it. “I thought they were no more.”
“Ilm–ari–nen,” she pronounced. “Nen means ‘the land’ and ilm is–”
“The flower,” he answered. “Land of the Ilms. I had forgotten just how beautiful they are. They don’t grow there anymore, I don’t believe. And they do not thrive long in captivity—they need wilderness to bloom.”
“Well, it would appear I hold one in my possession, to do with as I please . . .,” she eyed him, contemplating his features. “Take it. Offer it to your mate.”
“No, I couldn’t,” he replied. “Once broken from its stem, the ilm would begin to wilt, and . . . and Thelana would mourn for her lost country, should she behold it. Why . . . why show this to me?”
“I wanted you to see that I am not my brother. He was an overzealous fool, believing only that Hedonian customs mattered, and that in conquering all Enya, he would make of it one society. But even under centuries of control, Thetis remains little changed. Under my rule, Ilmarinen would be no differently affected. You could keep your Goddess, and go on living shamelessly in the nude, as you do. I have no qualm with your traditions.”
“Ilmarinen is lost,” he replied, “nor could it ever be, under foreign domination, no matter how benign. Ilmarinen is not Thetis. You cannot depose one ruler for another. We had no kings, no queens. We were free. And do not think that in baring your bosom to me, you might win my favor.”
She laughed, fingering a nipple as if noticing it for the first time. “Oh . . . did you believe the Queen of Hedonia would expose herself for just such a reason? You’ve let slip your ignorance! For the highborn ladies of Thetis . . . this is a traditional garment.”
“My apologies.”
She stepped closer now, enough for him to feel her breath. “But if you so desire, I could strip this off, and you your kilt, and we could see where it would lead us.”
“As you are not Ilmarin,” he replied, “I believe it would take us where I do not wish to go.”
She persisted, pressing her bosom against his, “Why do you resist, when you can take me here and now, in the garden? No one will see. It would be quick, and meaningless. Or do you not believe in pleasure for pleasure’s sake?”
Already he could feel the lust swelling in him, but remembering Thelana, he pushed her away. “Keep as you are! And I will do likewise.”
“Do you think me chaste?” she answered, clawing playfully at his chest. “I am a queen! And I am bored of the stock from my guards. I yearn for flesh seasoned in battle, for a rare, Ilmarin breed.”
“You’re nothing but a whore!” he exclaimed, throwing her back.
She smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” Righting herself, ironing the creases in her dress, she continued as if nothing uncommon had taken place. “On to the subject of Thetis. This city has always been ruled by a monarch. It was not difficult, therefore, to assume the status of queen, after all other heirs were done away with, of course.”
“There were others?” he asked.
“Naturally. But they were unfit to rule, and so I had to make certain arrangements, you understand?”
His eyes narrowed. “I do.”
“Never could I have imagined that the governor of Thalassar would challenge me!”
“And by what right does he claim authority?”
“By divine right! Recall that Hedonia is a theocracy, so my idiot brother tried to convert all the colonies, to worship Hedonian gods, to worship Sargon. Under Hedonian law, it is Sargon who rules the Empire. The High Priest acts as the mouth of Sargon. So after the death of my brother, the governor of Thalassar proclaimed himself as the new High Priest, and the colonies devoted to Sargon followed him! It is an outrage!”
“And so it comes down to war with Thalassar, is that it?”
“No,” she replied. “War might still be avoided. According to law, the position of High Priest must be selected, upon the deathbed of the former, and for this my ancestors have been selected for generations. To thwart the governor’s claim and ensure legitimacy, I intend to carry out my own ritual, pronouncing me both queen and high priestess. But to do so, I need two things: the sacred scrolls upon which the laws of my Empire have been set down, and a sacred relic, the Trident Scepter of Sargon. The High Priest, as a symbol of divine authority, carries it always. Perhaps you have seen such a relic?”
“I believe I have. It was the top of the staff carried by Urukagina, a small trident with golden prongs in a circle.”
“You remember!”
“I do.”
“Then you must retrieve it for me, and the scrolls.”
“Why not fashion your own?”
“Impossible,” she said. “The scepter is from the time of Suppilumiuma, and has all the weathering of time. A forgery would appear to be just that, and if the governor were to attain the true scepter, I would be made to look illegitimate. As for the scrolls, there have never been copies made, as it is considered blasphemy to do so, and even the magistrates of Thetis, who know it by word, could never write it in the exquisite calligraphy of my great ancestor.”
Xandr thought carefully, assessing the consequences of his answer. “. . . Should I obtain the scepter and the scrolls for you, would you make peace with the merquid?”
“Impossible. The citizens are so filled with dread and hatred that not even I can abate it. Should I even suggest peace, they would mutiny against me.”
“Then loose the merquid child to the sea.”
“You still dwell on that? Strange where your loyalties lie . . .” She sighed with resignation. “Very well, if his execution has not been carried out, he will be freed. But you did not come here as an ambassador for the merquid, did you?”
“No,” he replied.
“A campaign to the Dark Side would be costly, but may also prove profitable, and an empire is not an empire if it is not expanding.”
“Make me this oath, then, to do as you have spoken, that should you break it, the fate of Thetis will be as that of Hedonia.”
“I swear it. I swear to Sargon, and to all the gods, may their wrath not fall upon me.”
“Tell me then: what must I do?”
“You will go with Cambses and a party of fifty men, and return to the city, to the ruins of Hedonia. Seek out the place where Urukagina died and bring back the sacred relics.”
“And why not send Cambses alone?”
“Because you, Batal of Legend, managed to bring me the head of the Dark Centaur. That tells me you are a man above others, and it is just such a man that I need. What was once a capital is now a graveyard, where a hundred thousand angry spirits reside, drowned in a single, terrible moment, without the proper rites of cremation to send them to the next plane. The ruins are cursed. Of all the parties I have sent out to retrieve the relics, none have returned.”

The Great Book of Amber Review

I first heard of Roger Zelazny in the September 2004 edition of H&E Naturist magazine, in a review of my book. In it, Tim Forcer writes,

Sword and sorcery is a very old tradition of story-telling – possibly the oldest. Alimonos is not afraid to acknowledge one of the earliest in this tradition, that ancient Greek, Homer. He also quotes from or nods to a wide range of SF and fantasy authors, from Adams to Zelazny. But this is no derivative imitation or poor copy; Alimonos delivers a tale which is well-constructed and moves along at a fair pace.

By Adams, I assumed he meant Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but who in the world was Zelazny? I didn’t worry about it much at the time because I understood Tim to mean that my book alluded to every author from A to Z, obviously. Later on, I found Zelazny listed on many on-line forums as a must-read author, but the only thing I could find at my local bookstore was The Great Book of Amber, a tiring to hold 1258 page tome (no Kindle version yet!) collecting all ten of his novellas, which take place in the world of Amber. Interestingly enough, The Great Book of Amber is my 100th novel, and this review is my 100th post! How’s that for coincidence?

PROS: The concept is what makes the book worth reading. As Zelazny describes it, Amber is the one true world, and every other world is a shadow. You can think of these shadows like multiple dimensions or alternate universes. Characters move between them like in the TV show Sliders. The difference is, Amber is the only real world, whatever that means, so what happens in Amber affects every other universe—these include a modern day Earth and an Avalon from the Arthurian myths. Aside from that, the story is fairly simple and straightforward. Much of the conflict revolves around the Nine Princes, who, much like the families of the Roman emperors, continuously battle over who will rule in Amber.

As for Zelazny’s style, it is yet another great example of the myriad ways in which a story can be written, about which I am continually fascinated. In keeping with the theme of multiple universes, many of which include modern and medieval settings, Zelazny switches between a more descriptive style evocative of older fantasists and a simpler style emphasizing modern slang. Here are some examples:

Staring downward through the smoke, I caught my first glimpse of that sea. Beneath the deep blue, almost nighttime sky, with that golden sun hanging up there in it, the sea was so rich—thick as paint, textured like a piece of cloth, of royal blue, almost purple—and it troubled me to look upon it.

Elsewhere, he writes,

Ditto. and You get the idea.

CONS: The problem I had with the Great Book of Amber is that it revolves entirely around one character, Corwin, and he isn’t a particularly nice person. In his near obsessive quest to steal the throne from his brother, Eric, he comes off as self-centered, deceitful, and ruthless. Some readers think morally ambiguous protagonists are fresh and modern, but for me, a jerk is a jerk in any time period, in any universe. I suppose you can’t entirely blame Corwin’s behavior when his family members act just as badly. Two-hundred pages in, and I still don’t know why I should care about Corwin, or whether he even deserves to be king. Is his brother a terrible ruler? Would Corwin be any better? Zelazny never lets us know. If you ask me, the people of Amber should elect Trent as their king (from Piers Anthony’s Xanth). Maybe I could have cared more if the story didn’t revolve around one egocentric bastard. What’s worse, I never got a sense of Amber; from what we’re given, the one true world consists of a nondescript palace surrounded by a beautiful forest and a lake. Again, I’d rather spend my frequent flier miles on Xanth.

Overall, the story is simple and the characters are unlikable, but Zelazny is an imaginative powerhouse, continually inventing new ways to surprise. As long as you can stomach the insufferable ruling family (though honestly, I’m thinking a Bolshevik style revolution is in order), Amber may be worth the trip.