Lucas Finally Breaks My Heart

After more than a decade of defending him, I am finally brokenhearted by George Lucas. Why, George, why? See, I have always regarded him my favorite director. And not just for Star Wars. I love THX-1138 and American Graffiti just as well. Despite the torrent of hatred lobbed at him from YouTube and message boards, I have always admired his tenacity, his unwillingness to conform to the strictures of the masses. When Star Wars was made, Lucas defied tradition by refusing to put the credits at the beginning of the film. Because of this, he was kicked out of the Director’s Guild. When he was preparing to make The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas was afraid of studio intervention, so he financed the movie himself. If he hadn’t, there is not a doubt in my mind 20th Century Fox would have made a passable sequel at best, adding nothing to the franchise. Throughout his career, Lucas stuck to his guns, despite the critics, because that’s what artists do. When the Prequel films went on to receive near universal disdain, I applauded his courage, in challenging moviegoers to think, for producing, from his own pocket, a pop culture Sci-Fi adventure dealing with such heady topics as the root causes of evil, the Buddhist tenets of non-attachment, and the collapse of democracies into dictatorships. What other Sci-Fi films, aside from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, even comes close to such laudable artistic ambitions? Sure, the Prequel films weren’t your regular direct-by-numbers, mindless entertainment, but at least Mr. Lucas offered us something to discuss. Whether or not you agreed with Jar-Jar or thought the acting was abysmal is besides the point. Art isn’t intended to appease the majority. There are enough watch-it-and-forget-it movies out there. I wanted a Lucas film more than any other film, because he was unique; he was an independent billionaire who didn’t play by Hollywood’s rules. I don’t want to be spoon fed what a studio thinks I want to see. Hell, I don’t even want to be pleasantly satisfied. I want to be challenged. To be disturbed. Even annoyed. I’ll take Jar-Jar’s annoying antics over cut-and-paste film making any day. So when the masses cried foul that Han no longer shot first, Lucas stuck to his guns. He didn’t relent. Any other studio would have. Whether I agreed with him or not (I often don’t) I have always been inspired by him.

Walt Disney (the man, not the company) is another hero of mine. When he was working on Snow White in 1937, everyone told him the same thing they told Lucas; the movie would bomb and he’d lose all his money from mortgaging his house. But Mr. Disney stuck to his guns. He didn’t make Snow White merely as a financial venture, but also for artistic reasons. Then Walter kicked the bucket, and the studio went on to make a number of atrocities until, by 1988, they were prepared to shut down their animation department. What saved Disney animation and the future of the entire medium? The Little Mermaid. But, the movie almost didn’t get made. The artists, however, were given free reign, having been moved into a trailer park and largely forgotten. Fortunately, Disney went on to make a number of masterpieces, from Beauty & the Beast to Mulan, before succumbing to the industrial machine with garbage like Treasure Planet. Watch either the Toy Story or the Pocahontas documentaries to get an idea how Disney films are produced today. In Pocahontas, the wonderful song, If I Never Knew You, which was at the heart of the story and which validated the not-so-happy ending, was removed. Why? During a pre-screening, some kids looked bored. If Pixar hadn’t made the decision to ignore Disney’s advice about making Toy Story edgy (because that’s what kids “want,” apparently) we wouldn’t have the lovable Woody and Buzz. Fortunately, the head of Pixar understood the value of art for art’s sake. John Lasseter had been a long time fan of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation company headed by visionary Hayao Miyazaki, responsible for such masterworks as Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Given this background, it’s no wonder Lasseter refused to kowtow to Disney’s demand for a Toy Story 3. Pixar made the wonderful Finding Nemo instead.

The Disney Corporation is an entirely different beast than Disney the man, buying Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (because it wasn’t enough that every little girl on the planet adores Disney); Pixar (since they couldn’t force them to make a Toy Story 3 otherwise); and Marvel Comics. At least John Lasseter became the new head of Animation, who had the good sense to bring back traditional 2-D (presumed dead by a board of directors, no doubt) with The Princess and the Frog. Marvel has always had financial difficulties since, let’s face it, kids are too busy playing video games to spend 3 minutes reading, so maybe a Disney buyout was necessary. But Lucasfilm? Industrial Light & Magic is the premiere special effects company in the business. And their merchandise, which includes toys, games and books, sell like hot cakes. Best of all, it was all being run by a visionary, an anti-corporate tycoon, a man who produced Tucker, the true story of a revolutionary car maker bought out by the auto industry. It already frightens me how, when I submit my book to editors, most of the major players, despite going by many different names, fall under the same publisher. The fact that a handful of billionaires will eventually control everything we read and watch and listen to is terrifying, the very socialist, sterile future Lucas warned us about in his first film! So what does George Lucas go and do to finally, finally break my heart? My hero of independent thinking? He sells. And not just to anybody, but to the biggest of corporate conglomerates, to an industry that prides itself on focus groups and catering to expectations, where art has been broken down into a science, and success is measured only by the almighty $$$.

What can we expect from a Disney owned Lucasfilm? New Star Wars films, made by teams of writers, each scene optimized for marketing potential and toy-tie ins; and of course, any and all outrageous ideas, things that might upset or offend people, will get voted down. And what will we have? Films nobody complains about. Films nobody will go on message boards to rage against. No more boycotts. They’ll be like Tron and Pirates and Narnia. Moviegoers will be happy, Disney will make billions, and Star Wars will become just another blip in the noise machine that has become our modern movie producing society.

I honestly feel sorry for Lucas. The Internet age didn’t agree with him, and the haters finally beat him down. We live in a world where people with no real talents are given an equal platform to voice their discontent, where lynch mob mentality dominates, where opinion is distinguishable from fact. I am deeply saddened by this news on so many levels. Art is dead and the Internet seems to have killed it. To further illustrate the point, last week, the Wachowskis (of Matrix fame) released Cloud Atlas, based on a truly revolutionary book with deep philosophical underpinnings. Making ten million dollars in its first week, it is already being called the biggest flop of 2012. Based on those returns, we can expect the Wachowskis to get booted out of Hollywood soon, along with Shyamalan and Lucas, and anyone else who dares challenge the feel-good status-quo.

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 15

Chapter 15
The Trident
           
“Don’t ever leave me again.” Thelana’s cheek pressed between the scarred clefts of his torso. He longed to take her, to feel her soft hair between his fingers, but new manacles weighted his wrists.
“It was the only way.”
“Perhaps,” she said, watching him as if he might vanish. “They wouldn’t let me see you and we were so long on that damned ship! I didn’t even know if you were alive.”
The Trident was much larger and better furnished than the Nostrum. The cedar framework was sanded to a golden sheen and a pentagonal brassiere swung to the rhythm of the sea, showcasing the interplay of shadows and firelight. In the far corner, Emma sat in the folds of her robes like a bundle of laundry, humming faintly. She was becoming more willowy by the day, her cheekbones white and knobby about her raven-shaped eyes. Like a cat with a ball of yarn, she batted the hanging brassier, its faint glow making her all the more ghostly. When she did lift her head to Xandr or Thelana, something more fascinating caught her eye just beyond the doorway.
“How did they treat you?” he asked Thelana, clenching his fists as if he could reach into the past and attack it. “Were you fed?”
Thelana looked tamed to Xandr’s eyes, like a broken horse, her heels sagging lazily to the floor, her voice having lost its edge. She was not the feral woman he knew. “Whatever scraps they tossed us,” she answered at last. “But Emma, she’s had nothing since we launched. She just sits, humming that same blasted tune.”
“I don’t need food.” It came from the corner, a meager impression of the sorceress’ voice. “All I need is music. Can’t you see the music?”
Concern creased Thelana’s brow, and Xandr became aware of her aging. Time was breaking them all down. “You see? She’s been like that for days . . . muttering nonsense.”
He took Thelana’s hand in his. Emma cast them a sidelong glance, bitter and woeful. “Did you have any of the horsemeat?” he inquired.
“Horsemeat? What horsemeat?”
“Ours, Thelana,” he stressed. “Arrow, Warrior . . . Shadow?”
“No,” she replied. “They’re alive.”
His mind reeled. How long had they been from the Port of Thetis? “But . . . we’ve been starved!”
“The walls were thin on the Nostrum,” she started with some effort. “And you know my keen ears. I heard Cambses, drunk and raving in his quarters. The men begged to slaughter the horses, but he kept saying; ‘They’re my prize! Go catch fish, you lazy dogs!’ I suppose he planned to sell them. Honestly, Xandr, how long did you think we were on that wreck? Three horses would feed forty crewmen for a cycle.
“Xandr,” she murmured, her tone shifting with urgency, “who are these people? Where are we going now?”
“Not Thetis,” he replied. “Of that we can be certain.”
“What happened up there? What did you see?”
He tugged at his chains. They grew taut and slack again with a metallic chime. The desire to embrace her was like a wound festering in his bosom. “We were rammed,” he said absently. “Soldiers came over from this ship, and there was a . . . a struggle; our men, the Thetis men,” he corrected, “did not fare well.”
“And Cambses?”
“Gone,” he answered. “A woman came, and–”
“Is he taken prisoner?”
“No. If he lives, it is by the grace of Sargon.”
“What happened to him?”
“Let’s just say he won’t be patronizing any brothels anymore.”
There was a rusty click and the sound of a bolt separating and the door swayed open. A boyish face appeared, framed in the opening, a fresh gash running the diagonal of his cheek. “The Captain will see you. Just you, Batal.”
             
***
The Mare Nostrum was put to the torch. It drifted through the darkness like a wraith of fire. About its hull the waters shone in golden ripples and as its beams blackened and crumbled to ash, the creak of timbers and the sloshing of the waters and the roar of the flames were like the death throes of some ancient dragon. It was a truly pitiable sound. When, finally, the ship diminished to a yellow glow, Xandr lamented its passing, though he could not tell why.
The sky was azure velvet studded with diamonds. Every god presided over the night: the horned head of Skullgrin, the spread wings of Alashiya, the tri-starred trident of Sargon, and the terrible spinster that was Fate with her loom. Beneath this heavenly tapestry, amid the soft roll of white glittering waters, the ship rocked. The bow of The Trident was more than three times the length of the Nostrum. Arinna sat on a rectangle of rich patterns before the prow. The soldiers led Xandr forward. She commanded they depart and they obeyed, leaving the Batal alone with the captain. Then a young boy clad in embroidered silks tiptoed over to them, lifting a conical lid from a red baked pot. The sweet and salty aroma arrested Xandr’s senses, making him painfully aware of his hunger.
“It’s tajinne, a delicacy in Thalassar,” she said. The coins adorning her forehead jingled as she moved. “Lamb that cuts like butter. Please, don’t be shy. It’s not poisoned.”
The meat was neatly diced, simmering among prunes and olives. “I didn’t think it was.” His manacled hand reached clumsily for the the plate.
“Don’t eat quickly. Your stomach will reject whatever you put in it too quickly.”
He nodded, savoring the salty mix of spices, each mouthful falling into his stomach like a stone in a hollow well. Hunger precedes all things, he hazily remembered his teacher saying. “I am grateful.”
Her smile added to her beauty. “It’s seasoned and sealed in ceramic, then cooked for over a day in hot embers.”
Hesitantly, the servant boy returned, a tray of polished silver rattling between his nervous fingers. Tiny steaming cups were set between them, emitting a powerful minty scent. He lifted the cup into the light, admiring the jade coloring, the fine gold pattern etched into the glass.
“You are in luck,” she said, handling the ornate teapot. “You do drink tea, don’t you?”
He nodded. A pale of water from a mastodon’s mud-hole would have sounded good about now. 
“The mint that grows on the Oukamiden is the finest in the world.” She lifted the pot in both hands and poured from as high as her arms could reach, without missing a drop. “But the trick to really fine tea is letting it breathe.”
The minty liquid scalded him as he tipped the glass to his lips, but the flavor and the scent was worth the pain. “This place you speak of . . . is it part of Thalassar?”
She sat quite a while, contemplating a star, before answering. “It is now.”
“And you are a . . . a captain of Thalassar?”
“The Captain of the Guard, second only to the governor.”
He looked at his chains again, eyeing her with suspicion. “It is not often that a captive is offered such . . . hospitality.”
“Hospitality is central to the life of my people.”
“The people of Thalassar?”
“No. My people. The city is a hodgepodge of cultures, of displaced peoples, conquered . . . vanished peoples . . . I am a Verbeer, of the Oukamiden Mountains. Besides, you are not a captive.”
“Then why am I in chains?”
“Because I must know who you are . . . you were Cambses’ prisoner. My enemies’ enemy is my friend. But were you his enemy or the last of some brigands that tried to raid him? I cannot say why he would have brought you to the ruins if not to help in some way. But you do not look Hedonian.”
“What of the Nostrum and its crew? Did you slaughter them?”
“No. All who survived the battle are prisoners. And yes, the scrolls and the relic are aboard, as is . . . the sword. Would you know anything about that?”
“You have it?” he exclaimed, catching his eagerness in his throat. “It is . . . special to me.”
“Cursed, more like. It cut halfway through the hand of the man who tried to retrieve it, and cut off another of my men’s finger . . . We had to wrap it in a tarp to avoid more accidents.”
“It belongs to me,” he replied. “It doesn’t like to be touched by anyone else.”
She rested on an elbow, studying him as if painting a portrait. “Who are you?”
“I am Xandr, the Batal, of Ilmarinen.”
“Is that so?” she said disapprovingly.
“You don’t believe me?”
“I happen to know for a certainty that all the Ilmar are dead.”
The comment struck him like a fist and Xandr felt his appetite wane. “H-How would you know this?”
“If you are who you say, convince me, and I’ll set you free. But I warn you, stray from the truth, and you and your friends shall swim back to Thetis or wherever it is you would go.”
All he could do was dig his fingernails into his palms and glare at the image of Alashiya above him, her falcon form patterned in blue flickering stars. “Listen, Captain, hospitality or no, I’ve not the patience for this. You cannot imagine what horrors we’ve endured! My companions are in need of food and—”   
“Thelana and Emmalina? They’ve been taken care of, I assure you. Now tell me.”
“What would you have me say? And what would you know of my people?”
“I know that your people don’t wear clothes . . .” she said, hinting disdain.
“And in this you find fault?”
“If you must know, I think Ilmarin practices crude. Perhaps at one time, even my people, all people, behaved as you do, but humanity has moved forward. Is it any wonder that you and Thelana are the last of your kind? You are a dying breed, Xandr, as are your ideas.”
“You condemn us as though you know us,” he replied. “What is the point of this?”
She lied across her side, letting the turquoise moon accentuate her hips. “Call it my form of interrogation. Now tell me, what do you have to say to one who challenges your traditions?” But he did not take the bait. He sat quietly, eating quietly, and so she prodded him. “People need clothes. We aren’t beasts.”
“Indeed,” he answered. “Beasts do not engage in the kind of mass slaughter that we call war, or torture those of its kind that differ in some tenet of belief. So in this we are agreed. Animals we are not, though we might aspire to be so.”
Lesser people had been stunned by the kind of insightful answers given by the barbarian. But she remained unfazed. “All right, Xandr, all that may be true. But mankind has brought about as much good as it has evil. Art, for instance. Animals cannot create, or imagine . . . they simply are. What good is that? Do you propose we abandon writing, painting, and sculpting, so that we might revert to scavenging and hunting? Do you prefer a man expire of some illness, or become food for some predator, without leaving any mark of his uniqueness?”
“Your wit is as sharp as your sword. Art is a divine gift, truly, and it almost makes humanity worthwhile. But how does your argument denigrate the Ilmar?”
“Because you are nihilistic. You reject the most basic qualities of humanity. People need—want—to adorn themselves. People need individuality. Clothing does not serve merely to protect against weather or to restrain lust. It is a mark of culture as a whole, the textiles produced by its seamstresses, the colors and patterns chosen by its citizens, the entire pageantry of fashion and style; it is art. But you restrict your communes to conformity, nobody looking any different, just the same naked body from one day to the next.”
Xandr was perplexed. He had not the strength for argument, and could not imagine what his captor would have cared for an extinct culture. Nor had he ever matched words with such a foe. Ultimately, he found himself rebutting, rather feebly, “We do not prohibit clothing, Arinna. We choose the freedom to be without.”
“Well, of course you do, your people have been sheltered from the outside world. Since the Ilmar were brought into the open, they’ve abandoned their primitive habits. Who does not wish to hide his ugliness in fine woven fabric?”
“Wait, why do you speak of ugliness?”
“Admit it, Xandr; most men aren’t made as perfectly as you. Long ago, humans gazed in still waters and recognized their own ugliness.”
“But . . .” he muttered, “no one is truly ugly. How can you believe that? To the Ilmar, nothing is more beautiful, or sacred, than the unclad body.”
She swallowed a laugh. “You’re joking.”
“I have never been known for humor,” he admitted. “And you are greatly mistaken about the Ilmar. We are patrons of art, and our love of the human form attests to it. Fine fabrics and jewelry are cherished in our culture as well. But what is the shoe compared to the foot? Or the bracelet to the hand? How more noble in craft is every sinew and vein . . . How flawless in design is each organ? We are not meant to shun our own bodies, but to draw inspiration from it. That is the highest art man can achieve.”
“You may be inspired by the sight of some fair maidens, perhaps,” she replied with a wicked grin.
“It is a great evil that men should pervert the human form to something shameful, to elicit our basest instincts.”
“Come now, Xandr, you mean to tell me that your pulse does not quicken, or your phallus swell, at some wench without clothing? Clothing which can only impede the seizing of her?”
“I command myself, through reason, not instinct. That is what makes one human.”
“You would refuse me then, here and now?” she asked, as she slowly loosed the laces of her jerkin.
He studied her for a moment. She was so much like Thelana, but softer, less scarred, having known less of the sun. “You are beautiful, Arinna,” he admitted. “Woman is the fairest of all creatures.”
“Enough,” she said. “Only a true Ilmarin could speak as you do.” She motioned toward him and he noticed the key between her breasts. Yet he pulled away, tugging at his chains with a growl, until the manacles separated from his wrists, rattling loosely against the deck.
She slipped hard against her chin, astonished. “Y-You could have done that all this time, yet chose not to? Why?”
“You were testing me,” he said, rubbing the soreness from his wrists, “and I you.”
“To what end?”
“The same as yours, to decide where my allegiances lie, with Thetis or Thalassar. Do you believe the Ilmar and the Verbeer so different?”
“No,” she said quietly, “we are more alike than you know.” Her dull gold eyes searched the sky for gods invisible to him. One star shone brightest, and at this she fixed her gaze, and spoke. “We were a peaceful people . . . once . . . high in the Oukamiden, between Hedonia to the west and Nibia to the east. I was a shepherd in my other life. My sheep grazed the single winding road that ran from plains red and rocky as the Dead Zones to peaks white as the Pewter Mountains, through green terraced fields and homes built into the cliff face. Ours was a vertical world; we climbed as you might walk. My home was near the peaks, where snow melted and dashed against stacked boulders to become the river far beneath. We had no knowledge of the outside, until he came . . .”  
“Cambses?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “We were just a stain on his map, another name to be added to his log of glorious campaigns. Before we understood what had happened, we were a colony of Hedonia. It was not their swords and spears that defeated us; it was the markets, and the new gods, and the new temples. Our ways were deemed crude, simple, but they were our ways. We could have resisted. The Oukamiden Mountains are too high, too remote for any empire to hold for long. But my people brought doom upon themselves, by buying and selling and trading, moving down into the cities. I’d never seen level ground before I was sixteen.”
“At least you kept some traditions,” he replied. “Your hospitality, your food, that sword of yours.”
In a single swipe she unsheathed it from behind her. At an instant she might have opened his throat. The flat of the blade, disappearing on edge, glimmered with silver leaves and flowery patterns. Red, corded silk draped from its minaret-shaped pommel. “Yes, we have a saying, ‘you can remove the girl from the mountain, but never the mountain from the girl’.”
Charred onions and two morsels of tajinne were all that remained in the ceramic. His stomach ached for the last of it, but etiquette swayed his hand. “What is that star you keep looking at?” he asked finally.
“It is not a star,” she answered. “It is the famed lighthouse of Thalassar. By morning, we will have arrived.”
Post Script:

Thus ends The City of the Drowned. It was around this point in the writing that the review for The Dark Age of Enya hit the Internet. The review was very critical and a whole bunch of armchair critics jumped on the “let’s hate Nick” bandwagon (the same people, I imagine, who enjoy hating on Lucas and Spielberg and every other famous person who doesn’t meet their expectations) despite the fact that none of these people, save for the reviewer, had actually read Enya. The disappointment was utterly soul crushing, and so I made the radical decision to throw out everything and start over, including the work-in-progress sequel, in which this story is a part.

It’s hard to believe that was six years ago (2006). In looking back, I feel I may have overreacted. First of all, the review wasn’t actually terrible (5 out of 10) and other reviews, two of them in naturist magazines, were overwhelmingly positive. I suspect the Sci-Fi website reviewer only read the first three pages anyway, since his comments referred only to the first three pages. In hindsight, I think The Dark Age of Enya is on par with many of the swashbuckling adventures from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series to Robert Howard’s Conan, to even Greek myths like The Odyssey. In his review, Tim Forcer of H&E Magazine was kind enough to compare me to Homer. This was the style of writing I grew up with and adored. My thinking had always been, If Burroughs and Howard and Homer can write this way, why can’t I? Six years and 48 novels later, I came to realize that fiction is an ever evolving thing, that new trends and expectations develop that modern readers come to expect, and so I’ve evolved as a writer. While rewriting Enya may not have been necessary, I am glad I did it. The rewrite is richer in story and character, deeper in its exploration of social and literary themes, more layered in plot and nuanced in style.

So where does that leave the original novel’s sequel, The City of the Drowned? I can’t really say. In truth, it’s an odd duck, a literary fish out of water, a snapshot from an alternative universe. The first chapters set up quite a bit of plot points that are never fully explored. You may be wondering, for instance, what happens to the magic healing jewel Xandr has? Or what happens to Emma with her impossible love for Xandr and that old gypsy crone’s dire predictions? Or of the civil war between Thetis and Thalassar? Who is Arinna? And more importantly, what does Xandr’s nightmare signify? Is it possible that our hero becomes a tyrant? I planned to explore all of these in The Dark Age of Enya 2, but sadly, the lack of interest from agents, publishers and web reviewers prevented it, and crazily enough, that’s a good thing. The hazing process has given me a tougher skin, and with each rejection I simply improve as a writer. 

Years from now, I will return to this story. The form it will take I cannot say. One thing is certain though; I’ll be getting rid of those damned horses. What the heck was I smoking when I decided to write a nautical adventure with horses is anyone’s guess. See? You write and you learn. But Xandr and Thelana and Emma will return, in one form or another. 


The fabled lighthouse of Thalassar awaits . . . 


   

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 14

Chapter 14
Tide of Fears
The salt desert spread with the teeming thousands. Gold stallions bucked on the red backdrop of the Nibian banner. The left flank was burnished in studded plate and banded mail. Soon, other groups joined the Nibian cavalry, a ragtag of freemen and mercenaries under the blue fist of Kratos; the blue-skinned, turbaned infantry under the jade moon and scimitar of Abudan; the plume crested hoplies in phalanx formations with their sixteen-foot sarissas oscillating in unison under the bearded god of Thalassar. Lastly, out of Northendell, holding the right flank, the Knights Dragonslayers arrived in gleaming full plate with their red standard of dragon and sword.
Under the Batal’s watchful eyes, the assembled armies were as wide and vast as the grasses on the hills of his homeland. All had come to oppose him, the Flower Banner. But it was the sword itself, the true symbol of his justice, against which they were allied.
Already he could feel it, the Sword of Emmaxis, quivering lustily in his mailed palm. “What do they say?” he asked the sea of bitter faces.
The messenger boy cupped his knees with exhaustion, sucking air with his answer. “Your Grace, they will not kneel.”
The Batal brushed thumb and forefinger against the rough hairs of his chin, silent.
“Shall I inform the commanders, your Grace?”
“No.” Emmaxis’ teeth glittered in the noon sun, and the boy shuddered before its presence, backing away. “If they will not kneel,” he murmured, almost apologetically, “then they will writhe!”
The sword swung over the precipice across the valley below, and its shadow fell over the assembled armies, and the commanders at his shoulder looked on aghast as the blade caught the sun. The world dimmed. Every color became muted. The Batal regarded the encroaching armies like a swarm of gnats. Emmaxis came around in a violent arc and a great wail rose up from the multitude as the earth trembled and came apart in jagged rifts. Banners toppled; phalanxes fell into disarray; steadfast warriors bent with paralysis, tugging at their helms with dread. 
“How did it come to this?” Xandr whispered to himself, and in raising his arm he saw that the hilt was now part of his extended arm, and upon the skull face he glimpsed a reflection of his own awful visage. 
Wood splinters grated against his beard and chin. His jaw ached and his teeth felt misaligned. His head, too heavy for his shoulders, came up from the oar clumsily. For how long he sat shivering, he could not guess, nor did he know whether his flesh was prickled because of the dream, or the damp cold and darkness that saturated him.
He was still on the Mare Nostrum, still roped to the benches. The sword, which extended like a ghostly part of the ship’s ram, had not been moved from the prow. The crew worked around it, whispering superstitiously, spreading rumor of its origin, predicting miserable fates. On occasion, Xandr would overhear them pleading with the captain to release their captives, but Cambses remained stubborn as ever, keeping to his quarters, refusing even to take to the oars.
The journey home was fraught with greater misery than their outgoing voyage. The currents resisted their every effort. Nights were stale and frigid, and days were bleak and overcast so that the sunrise went unnoticed. The navigator was unsure as to whether they were even making headway. Murmurs persisted of the curse, due in part to Emmaxis, in which a circular current dragged the ship toward the center of the sea to an island of lost vessels. Xandr did not believe in such nautical lore, but was beginning to believe in the rumors of his own sword. His recent nightmares were no doubt a product of this fear. 
Nets brought up little by way of food. There were strangely shaped barbed things and poison-filled sacks with wiry tendrils and hard-shelled critters with many legs and spiny feelers, but all were difficult to chew and offered little meat. In the haze of daylight, silhouettes dwarfed the ship and sank from view like coiling serpents. None dared guess at what they could be or dared to hunt them down. No doubt Warrior, Arrow, and Shadow were divided amongst the crew, or preserved in salt for Cambses’ refined palette. Often Xandr wondered about Thelana’s appetite, whether she would care for strew made of her own beloved mare.  
Rain came in sheets, down and sideways and diagonally, for days on end. The crew was wise to fill their helmets with fresh water, but it was both blessing and curse. Death by thirst was the dread of all sailors: it came unexpectedly and with dementia, but the gusts that accompanied the storms steered them in unwelcome directions, and the ships’ saturated beams groaned underfoot.
Days went uncounted. It was known only that more time passed than on their journey to the ruin, which unnerved the crew. Hunger increased to desperation, and desperation to loss of reason. Oarsmen strutted about wild eyed, muttering openly of fears once spoken in hushed voices. They spoke of the walking dead and grayquid and the lich priest. Irrationality spread about the Nostrum like a sickness—the notion that they were dead already, that the realm in which they sailed was not of the living world but a mere illusion of it.
One day, Xandr noticed that the oarsman across from him, Gregory, did not return from his morning meal. He had been of a nervous, talkative sort with a bad infection of the skin. Years ago he had been a slave, Xandr knew, but won freedom as a gladiator in the coliseums of Thetis. After his disappearance, no one spoke of him. It was as if Gregory ceased to exist altogether.
His stomach cramped with emptiness, but Xandr did not fear starvation. Should desperation take hold, no ropes could keep him from devouring an adjacent crewman. But for Thelana, he was in the dark. Too weak to keep with the pace of the oars, she was sent below deck. But what was she fed? How was she treated? In open combat, no man could stand against her, but in the closed quarters of a pentaconter, half starved, how would she fare? He remembered her remarking that thieves did not do well on ships. The same could be said of the Ilmar. Hidden in the shadow of this fear was another. Emma was of Northendell, and her people were of a proud naval tradition. She was more robust and well dressed than Thelana and perhaps her arcane crafts could sustain them both. But she was also a high-born urbanite, a lady of letters and etiquette. Why had she persisted in following them through the harsh wilds of Enya? And why had she so readily surrendered her life to Cambses’ men?
“. . . the third wheel of a two-wheeled chariot.”
It was a phantom echo in his ears. He was not blind to her longings. But he had not the strength to shun a friend. Or was it something more? A single memory floated to the surface of his jumbled mind, a night in Northendell, a stolen kiss veiled in raven strands. In starved delirium, he wandered the forbidden avenues of possibility. If Thelana did not . . .
NO!
He would not permit it. Even to think it was betrayal.
As for Thelana, he never asked, knowing better than to voice his fears. A sign of weakness and Cambses might reconsider his oath, toss him and his companions to the depths.
Day after day, Xandr pulled his oar in silence, revealing only an impossible strength of will. Scraps from the nets were thrown at his feet, and he devoured these readily, and that was his only interaction with his captors.
The dreams continued. In waking hours they lingered, vague fields of ghostly armies, the shapes and colors of their banners muted by the void of the dream world. All he could recall with clarity was the horrid face on the surface of the sword, his own face, and yet not his.
The waters and the wind stilled and hope emerged with moonlight, bathing them in turquoise. With a clear sky, a navigator could find his direction by way of the moons, mark his position by the constellations. But something, a silhouette, was rising up from the shadowy horizon. Xandr’s fear turned to the immense aquatic creatures they had seen before, but in nearing, sails took form, and oars. There was the swish of a hundred distant oars breaking the surf and charging against their ship was another twice the Nostrum’s height.
CRACK!
The thunderous sound was followed by snapping and ripping. Oars shattered like the bones of a giant. The pentaconter groaned and pitched and Xandr was struck by a cold wave. Oarsmen stumbled out of sleep, swords clutched drunkenly, and from somewhere Cambses was shouting commands. In that same instant, fresh-faced boys in plumed helmets flew across the divide of conjoined ships, spears clutched high. Desperate screams came near and far, the crunch of bronze against bronze; and new blood spilled over old, darkening the fibers of the Mare Nostrum.        
His wrists were like raw meat, resisting the ropes painfully. “Release me!” he called. “I can fight for you!” But his offer went unheard amid the din of battle and in the shadow of the starboard bow he was forgotten.
It was a pitched melee as violent and desperate as any, yet the flooring shifted to and fro and the battleground was narrow and unforgiving. Bodies and bronze clashed together like netted fish, squirming and thrashing, the occasional blade slipping between limbs to release entrails. Xandr watched men die for want of maneuverability: swords remained fixed in scabbards, others caught mid-stroke against the mast or railing. There was no quarter for retreat. It was brutal, gruesome, messy. And it was not easy to tell who was fighting whom, and which side, if any, was making headway. Only one stood amongst the crowd. Cambses wallowed in blood like a battle cat amid sheep, and there was a gleam in his eye, a madness induced by the joy of slaughter, of killing that which could bleed.
The herd was now thinning and more bodies lay quietly on deck than were on their feet. At a glance, only the blue plumes remained, their horsehair crests bristling confidently in the gale. The crew of the Mare Nostrum: fatigued, hungered, caught unawares, had not fared well. But there was Cambses, adamant as an ox, clearing a bloody circle where he stood, cutting youth like weeds. It was as if he belonged to another crew, one prepared for war. Cambses had come out of the womb with gladius in hand.
The Nostrum was secured and the oarsmen coming late to battle swore fealty to their conquerors, all but Cambses, who toyed with his attackers like a teacher his pupils. But the men of the opposing ship could claim to be men loosely, as they trembled at the sight of the dreadful captain of the Mare Nostrum.
It was then that she appeared. Her lithe shape and purposeful gait reminded Xandr of Thelana. She was a ruddy hue in the torchlight, her hair knotted the color of redwood under a gem-studded scarf of leafy green. She wore a laced leather jerkin and boots with stiletto heels that clacked at her approach. Her eyes shone like dull gold, resolute and impassive.
“Stand back!” she commanded in an accent strange to Xandr’s ears. Before Cambses she stood like a mother over an unruly son, though she looked young enough to be his.
“Arinna,” he grunted, shaking bloody clots from his blade. “I should have known.”
“Give me the scrolls, Cambses,” she said without blinking.
He grinned through red-stained teeth. “They don’t belong to you.”
“They belong to the faithful.”
“First I’m goin’ to cut you open with my sword, then I’m goin’ to cut you open with my cock, and then I’m goin’ to take that fine trireme of yours. And if you survive me, I’ll have my men have a go at you.” And he spit a tooth at her pointed toe.
She showed no fear, turning and raising a slender wrist. A silver line suggested a blade. It nearly split his nose as she brandished it, and Xandr noted the curved edge, no thicker than a thumb, and the red tassel dangling from its pommel. 
There was an explosion of frantic arms and jumbled steps. Arinna’s waif-thin sword flopped and bent and split the air with an ear-piercing whine, its tassel snapping this way and that. She handled it on her fingertips, without ever touching Cambses’ gladius or armor. But the encounter was short lived. The Hedonian stumbled drunkenly against her, pinning her sword in the pit of his arm. At her heels the waters threatened. She recoiled. He gloated over her, forcing her between the oar port and his knees.
“That was disappointing,” he spat. “The mighty Arinna, Captain of the Guard. I’d heard rumors. I suppose they weren’t true.”
Her steel bit the floor dividing them. “I am not you, Cambses, not an oaf that stumbles about flailing futilely. I am like the black widow; I ensnare.”
“Hold that tongue, bitch, lest I cut it out! Or put it to better use . . .”
A smile crept along her face. “Do you know why I call my saif Inner Spirit?”
His gladius came up, speckling her with slaughter. “Your sword? What are you babbling now b–”
From Xandr’s viewpoint, Cambses jerked upright, and with a chilling, almost womanly shriek, the straps about his sandals darkened to crimson. Arinna pulled the needle-thin dagger from his scrotum and pushed him aside, as though he were a mere canvas of himself, neatly fitting the blade into the handle of her saif. The gladius tipped into the sea and Cambses fell away with it.

Find out how the story concludes in Chapter 15
Return to Chapter 13

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 13


Chapter 13
The Curse
Screams rang in the darkness followed by flickers of light. Though familiar with the voice, they shuddered at it. Nothing enraged the Batal like betrayal.
“Novae!”
With the Ancient word, Emma made their surroundings visible. It was a faint glow without origin, turning the dust to glitter. 
Emmaxis sparked again against the weathered patterns of the entryway—“Villain!”—Xandr was beating the stone like a man possessed, screaming. “Pernicious, devil-spawned villain!”
Emma called his name in dulcet tones. “We must come to our senses. The wall is not your enemy.”
He lowered the sword. “If Cambses were before me, I’d run him through! Alas, we are trapped! Vengeance is denied me!”
“My wings can carry me to an aperture in the ceiling,” she answered, “I am sure of it. But I would not dare leave you.” Her voice faltered, lingering on the last word, on him. 
“No trap can keep me.” It was Thelana, paying Emma no heed. Peeling off what little remained of her garments, her bluish skin prickled in the chill. Emma was tempted to make a joke, but it was not a time for laughter. “There is a way out,” she continued, “the way I would have escaped last year, if Xandr hadn’t ruined my plans.” Her violet lips curled into a smile.
Xandr came away from the wall, wrath given way to curiosity. “When you came for the Eyes of Sargon, I had thought you climbed in from the top.”
“I did, but I couldn’t very well go out the way I came in; they would have been expecting that! There’s an aquifer that cycles fresh water in and out of the temple, or used to before the Sea swallowed this place. The sacred pool led to it.”
“But the city is a ruin,” he cautioned, “and the aquifer is likely flooded and teeming with horrors!”
“Do you want vengeance?” she replied. “This is the only way. Stay if you prefer and await my return, but I doubt we’ll have the time to catch the Nostrum. And without a ship, we’re forever doomed to wade through this muck.”

***

Two bodies coursed through space, weightless, straining with desperate limbs against inaction. It was a test of muscle and mettle, the ever-present void choking all notion of warmth from their memories. Upon entering the water, the cold turned to pain, but now the pain became a total lack of sensation.
Where the light penetrated the watery depths, they could see the flat masonry curving into a long, winding, circular tunnel. Xandr and Thelana clung to every mossy niche, searching through eyes burned by the salty sea, for escape, for respite against the fire in their lungs. Then the aquifer wall receded into the gloom and there was only darkness, and into this darkness they pushed, as though seeking to vanish entirely.
Xandr was uncertain as to whether Emmaxis proved too great a hindrance, but Thelana moved like a creature born of the sea, her arms and legs and torso undulating with graceful unity. He watched her move higher and further away until she disappeared in a cloud of opaqueness. There was nothing around him now, no sound, no sight, no awareness of anything. Death could not have been much different. But the sharp throbbing of his will kept him alive and kicking, that, and his burning desire for vengeance.
Out of the pitch blackness, a gray haze came into being, and if what had been prior was much like Death, this was rebirth. Air pained his lungs, but it gave him courage. Thelana was grinning. Without a word he pulled her close, so their thighs brushed together as they kicked to remain afloat, and in each other they found warmth. 
Shaking them from idleness, a man-sized fish clawed its way through the water. Rows of unpleasant teeth defined its maw. Its fins were ridged with finger-like bones. It was of no species known to them, but like those prehistoric fossils found in formations of rock. Gelatinous eyes pondered the human visitors, but the creature did not pause its awkward padding, and the wake of its bony tail rippled against their bosoms as it passed.
With some effort Thelana found her voice. Her words came heavily, through clutches of breath. “Over there . . . an opening . . . we can climb.”
No air was wasted on useless prattle. He followed her gaze to the hill of worked stones fallen from the roof, and marveled at her eyes, how they remained bright and fearless.
Shortly they reached the haphazard slope of pyramid, formed of the natural and the manmade. They vaulted from one smooth plateau to the next, until finding sure footing and started to climb. The passage above the aquifer was much like the halls they explored upon entering the temple complex. No water came down from the ceiling, but a putrid mist obscured their vision and offended their nostrils. Vines grew from every crevice, thick as a man’s wrist across the floor. They followed the sounds of dashing waves that echoed from afar, over violet poison bulbs with finger-length barbs. Warmth and light steadily increased, until they stood before a precipice where the outer wall of the pyramid was collapsed and the whole of the drowned cityscape spread before them. Somewhere along the adjacent wall, the Mare Nostrum was moored. Whether it still remained they could not know.
A sickly fluttering jerked them to alertness. Translucent wings spread the length of Thelana’s outstretched arms as she reached for her sword. The jade handle felt smooth in Thelana’s palm and she took strength from it. With knees bent and heels raised, a gold blur passed between her and the dragonfly hovering just beyond the broken ledge, splitting its thorax in two, leaving green gobs against her blade. The left wing fell into the deep mist below, the other half at her feet, buzzing the last of its life.
“Just a bug,” she murmured.
Xandr stared unremarkably. “Come away, Thelana. Emmaxis hungers for blood that is red.”  
The approach did not come as a surprise. At a distance, the sailors watched them clamor over reefs formed from the ebbing tide, over smooth planes of collapsed marble, defying wind and waves. They did not take heart in it, but rather, the belabored confrontation struck the oarsmen with dread. How could the Batal have escaped from the sealed tomb? And so quickly? Where they had betrayed him?
Reversing the course of the Mare Nostrum had not been an easy affair. The ship was locked between two towering monoliths, intermittently submerging rooftops, and a tide that threatened to rip the hull to timbers. There had been considerable discussion, consisting of both shouting and name calling, of what was to be done. During this quarrel the Ilmar came into view, like the coming of some ship-wrecking storm. Cambses face coarsened like a burlap sack. It was a look of iron will and consternation, familiar to those who had been at war with him. His gladius gripped at his side, he went out between his men to meet the Batal and his companion.  
The way the winds arrayed Xandr’s hair made him look all the more a madman. In his hands, Emmaxis stared back at them, grinning like a living thing.
“There are worse things here than grayquid,” Xandr said to them.
“All you barbarians sicken me,” Cambses shot back. “Thousands fell to my gladius in the Purification Wars. Killing two more will be a simple task.”
Thelana kept her bowstring tight, her eyes like a battle cat in the grass. “War makes monsters of men!”
Twenty-two able crewmen formed behind their captain, shields and spears at the ready. One of them handed his tower shield to Cambses. The red and gold of the Hedonian trident shone dully upon it. “Your savagery is no match for us, Batal. I have seen this time and again on the battlefield. Courage and strength fail against strategy.”
“Listen, one and all: My fight is not with you!” Xandr cried. “Let down your weapons, or join the restless dead that dwell here.”
A bronze spear rang inches from Xandr’s chin, crumpling against Emmaxis broad face, in answer. Another sailor ran across the crumbling floor, putting faith in his plate and long shield. But the skull-faced sword divided him from these accompaniments, and with another stroke, the blood gushed from the man’s open neck as from a broken wellspring. Searching for its missing head, the body stumbled and slipped, and crimson foam tinged the spray of the sea.
“Marcellus!” Cambses shouted, the veins reddening the white of his eyes.
Xandr stood firm as a stone, sword dripping like a newly inked quill. “You would sacrifice all these men, for Frazetta?”
“No Xandr. She holds a temporary seat, for the true emperor, he who will resurrect Hedonia’s greatness!”
“And who would be this emperor, you?”
“If Fate wills it.”
Now Thelana came forward, balanced upon a truncated pillar jutting from the water. “There will be other great empires, fabulous nations, but the age of Hedonia is over! Fate decided this. You cannot undo it.”
“Admittedly, she is a cruel bitch, Fate. But the goddess’ influence can be bent, even broken, through the sheer power of human will.”
“If you would dare such hubris,” Xandr replied, “do not let your men die for you. Prove yourself! Attack me!”
 Now Cambses charged like a bull with horns lowered. Hedonian bronze met Ancient alloys, and where the sea pooled about their ankles, they heaved and grunted to toss each other from the narrows. The old captain was wise in the ways of battle, and knew not to contest against Xandr’s long blade. Rather, he forced Emmaxis away with the brunt of his shield, thrusting again and again, the tip of tin and copper grazing the hairs of his adversary’s naked abdomen.
Crouched and barricaded, Thelana launched her arrow, and a Hedonian soldier lurched forward. She released again, and the feathered shaft ricocheted from a stony protrusion—under the shield into a second man’s heel. As quickly as he could wince, she was between him, directing his own gladius against his jugular, making him permanent to the ruin.
Long sword, shield, and short sword continued their interplay of clashing and grinding and evasion. Cambses strategy proved flawless. No matter how swiftly Emmaxis came around, the shield was always there. With each escape, Xandr lost ground. Steadily the Hedonian pressed him, to where he could not maneuver, to where he would lose balance and plummet.
“Admit defeat, Batal! There is no way you can beat me!”
The words rang truthfully, but there were many games of strategy. Shifting his heels forward, Xandr attacked headlong. A triumphant grin crossed the other’s lips as he tore through naked flesh, but the expression transformed to agony as an elbow loosed the clasp of his chinstrap, freeing the teeth from his mouth. Inside Cambses’ defenses, the skull-face glowered, cutting across his shield arm. With a fist through the bridge of his helmet, Xandr sent him sprawling with a nose like a smothered cauliflower. Red streamed from the captain’s arm, along the concave of his tower shield, the surge of the sea washing it clean and bleeding it anew. At any moment the Batal could have killed him. But Xandr knew better than to further anger the crew at his command.
“Call off your men!” Xandr cried, his one arm staunching the flow of blood from the gladius made wound in his side.
Cambses glanced around. Another of his men—of his friends—screamed, and where he fell Thelana stood streaked with red. “Periplous!” he croaked. “Form of periplous!”
Suddenly the Ilmar found themselves corralled, at the center of bristling spear-points.
“Don’t lay off, Batal,” Cambses said. “Kill me so that my men might take action!”
“No,” he replied. 
Thelana scowled, batting spears off by the edge of her sword. “Kill him Xandr and let’s be done with it!”
Under beaded brows, Xandr watched their eyes, intense, determined, troubled.
“Do not let this disgrace continue!” Cambses rasped. But his men stood motionless, loving him too dearly to take action.
Emmaxis’ tip alighted atop the Hedonian’s throat. “It would seem we are at an impasse. Perhaps an agreement can be reached.”
“You would trust me, after my betrayal?”
“Any other way, we both die, and only your men make it home alive. But still, I wonder, if less than half your crew can row back to Thetis through these waters.”
“We need your strength, now that you’ve slain three more of my men. Killing you before reaching port would not be to our advantage.”
“It is settled, then?” Xandr asked.
“Not quite. For I have one more item with which to barter. Kalokus!”
Down the ramp of the Mare Nostrum a man came limping, his shin heavily bandaged. It was he who had been shot by Thelana in the temple. All parted for Kalokus to answer the summons. Between his fingers were the outstretched wings of a raven.
“Not too common around here,” said Cambses. “Ravens.”
Emmaxis shuddered in Xandr’s arms, and he let off the man completely. The crew pressed closer with their spears.
The feathers of the raven expanded, becoming delicate fingertips, no less helpless in the ragged clutches of Kalokus. Among the battle hardened warriors, she was like a child, lost and afraid and shivering. She blinked and peered about, her dark lashes fluttering like a bird’s wings. “Xandr,” she murmured. “I’m not . . . I’m nothing to you, the third wheel of a two-wheeled chariot.”
The crash of the waves could not muffle the Batal’s frustrated sigh. His steely resolve subsided. Emma had disarmed him.
“An impasse indeed,” Cambses goaded, grinning through what blood-soaked teeth remained.
“What would you have me do?” he asked the captain.
“No, Xandr!” Thelana cried. “Listen to Emma. He’ll slit our throats in our sleep!”
But the Batal was deaf to her.
“Join my crew, as an oarsman,” Cambses went on, “but you will be tied. You will arrive in Thetis a prisoner, and from there, let the magistrates decide your fate.”
There was not a murmur to be heard, no sound but the ceaseless, ever-present tumult of the sea. Finally, Xandr let out a horrible wail, like a barbarian chieftain leading men to battle, and with that he hefted Emmaxis to the shoulder, and hurled it at the ship. It sank beneath the Nostrum’sram, and the toothy skull became fixed, as part of the prow as any nail. The reaction so dumbfounded the onlookers—even Thelana and Emma—that they simply stood and stared.
“I agree to your terms,” Xandr said softly, “but by my sword, by Emmaxis, Blood-Spiller, I do curse the Mare Nostrum and its crew! Curse it that it never reach port!”

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 12


Chapter 12
The High Priest of the Faithless

Tripods were found and erected, their brassieres set ablaze, and the altar chamber took form. Ripples radiated from their ankles, the crests glinting like jewels as they moved through the shallow water. Xandr was overcome with an awful sense of recognition as the tomb-like chamber met his eyes. Shattered bits of marble, green with algae, were all that remained of Sargon and his seashell chariot of life-sized whales. When he closed his eyes, he could see what it had been—a glorious work of art in gleaming white. But in his mind’s ear, the voices of the dying still echoed, Aeneas and Diomedes, who had given their last breath in battle beneath that idol, by the lip of the sacred pool.
“There,” he said to Cambses, “the idol was there, as was the altar, but I do not know what we can hope to find.”
From raven form, Emma made herself known, and everyone looked on, baffled. “Something is terribly wrong, it’s a wrongness I can’t describe . . . all the city’s sorrow is focused here. It both emanates and drains from this place, like a . . . a maelstrom. It’s as if the temple is drawing the surrounding sorrow, only to unleash it back out in a torrent of ill will.”
Cambses rushed at her, his sword quivering under her chin, as though driven mad. “You should have stayed on the ship!” But already the men were beginning to murmur, of their deepest, superstitious fears. Before she could react, Xandr drew forth Emmaxis, striding between them. “Calm yourself, Captain. These ruins have unnerved you, all of us for that matter; that is all she is trying to say.”
The two men, Xandr and Cambses, approached the center of the shrine with caution. Thelana took the rear guard with Archimedes and Emma. The other eight, dreading what they might find, remained further back, hands tight about their spears. An immense head met their gaze, lying on its side like a sleeping giant; its handsome features were half-submerged so that part of its nose, lips, and left eye were but a reflection mirrored in the still water. In view of this face, there was the altar, a black slab rimmed in gold circular patterns of Ionik design.
“If the scrolls are here,” said Cambses, “they should be placed there, below the topstone. Archimedes, come with me!”
The Hedonian and the old sailor trudged to the black form, but in doing so, something was disturbed. All warmth went from the room. Rising straight from the dark water, as though brought up by some invisible pulley, a tall, gaunt shape cast its shadow across the face of Sargon, which in the dim circle of burning tripods proved vaguely human. Archimedes shook with terror, yet he was somehow drawn to it, the water beneath his shuffling feet like a black undulating mirror. Xandr stood frozen, watching the tapering bishop’s miter and the soiled gray tatters, which were once so white, billowing like silk in a whisper of wind. The face was pallid, and as the light played across the clefts and nodes of the remaining bone and sinew, the truth of it could not be denied, for it was the High Priest Urukagina himself, the flesh of his face hanging loosely from his skull like the threads of his robe, and in its skeletal fingers was a long staff, crowned by a small symbol, a gold trident in a circle.
Cambses and Xandr drew their weapons as Thelana’s fingers fumbled for an arrow. Emma chanted to give them protection, but behind her the naval warriors recoiled, hiding beneath their shields, palms sweaty at their spears, greaves clanking fretfully against the clasps of their sandals. With uncanny swiftness and a purposeful gait unlike the drowned, the corpse moved toward Archimedes, who stood trembling, but curiously still. Bony thumbs pressed against the old sailor’s eyelids, as if the High Priest intended to blind him. What happened instead was far worse than any could have imagined. Powerless to help their shipmate, they watched, as Archimedes’ beard grew long and ashen, his face yellowing like parchment, becoming increasingly wrinkled and brittle, until the skin peeled off him in flakes. By the time the priest released him, what was left of Archimedes dipped beneath the shallow water, his body aged to a lifeless husk that crumpled in paper thin layers about his skeleton.
Emmaxis felt long and heavy, its lust for slaughter absent, but Xandr pressed on. “Urukagina!” he called out.
The thin gray form shrank away, appalled by the name, and then it gave reply, a high-pitched whine tainted with something distant and otherworldly. “I am not he, but what remains of him.”
Cambses’ eyes were like eggshells, his pupils receded to inkblots. Sweat drained from his helmet and down his chin. His gladius felt loose in his palm. This was a thing unprepared for, inconceivable; it unfastened the knots of his brain. “He is not our priest!” he blurted. “We do not owe it allegiance; it is but a puppet of bones and sinews that makes a mockery of Sargon! Batal . . . do you see it? Seize the staff!”
The priestly figure accosted them, appearing not to walk, but moving through some form of locomotion that defied logic or description. Xandr and Cambses met the apparition with flashing steel, water raining from Emmaxis as it came up out of the water and down again. But the foul thing possessed an uncanny swiftness, and was so terribly emaciated that the two men could only guess where the points of their weapons might strike effectively. It was like dueling a silken sheet in a windstorm; they could but hope to shred it into strips of cloth. Rarely did the priest retaliate, and even when doing so, it only seemed to want to touch them with the tips of its icy fingers, which the two combatants did not dare risk, lest a single caress steal years from them, or worse, rob them of whatever vitality they still possessed.
All the while, Thelana’s arrow sat idly against her bow, for the cursed creature shifted too suddenly, so that she feared hitting one of her own. Behind her, the oarsmen rounded the black altar, and after much discussion, the two bravest hurled down the slab cover. It shuddered and split as it struck the ground and she watched a man lean in, pulling forth a pair of cylinders.
Still fighting, Xandr and Cambses were drawn into the shadows, and only then did they realize their folly, as the being against which they struggled became more animated, the empty sockets of its eyes glowing with an inner flame. “Look closely, Xandr, for you shall someday be as I am.” It cackled horribly, and a wave of despair clutched at Xandr’s heart like an invisible hand.
“What are you!” the Ilmarin cried, and faltered, as his sword become suddenly heavy.
“There is no rhyme or reason; I simply am, and am no more.”
With its attention drawn to the Batal, Cambses swung his gladius at the back of its neck, certain the corpse could not see him, but the unholy staff repelled the blow, the edge removing the headpiece from the shaft. With a covetous glare, the Hedonian snatched up the trident symbol and shrank quietly from battle. Seconds passed before Xandr became aware of his absence. Whether his ally was struck dead in the shadows or ran off, he could only guess. Undeterred, he gathered up his courage and strength, Emmaxis tearing through the gray robes, through bone and tissue like brambles, but to no avail. 
“I killed you once,” he shouted, “I will do so again!”
“You murdered a high priest of Sargon,” the voice replied, “you peeled mine eyes to the truth; I saw the empty void, and I led my city to the new faith, to the nothing that is. Only the faithless see.”
The words came plainly, but were senseless, or so he hoped. As the priest continued to rant—or was he preaching?—Xandr was overcome with the sick feeling that comes with awful realizations, for the priest’s words seemed to possess some aspect of truth, of terrible truths no mortal was meant to hear. “You’re insane!” Xandr cried at last.
With Cambses removed, Thelana and Emma scurried into the ring of light. Finding her mark, the archer loosed her shaft, but it passed through the filmy robes without resistance. The sorceress came next, her dark trappings and raven black hair swallowed by the gloom.
“Ye gods!” she gasped, for she looked with different eyes at what had been Urukagina, and what she saw was an absence, a thing that existed apart from the substantive reality around them, its presence known only through the luminescent swarm—its event horizon—giving it form and dimension. “It is like a black hole,” she muttered, “trapping all the light. Alas, Nabonus and Archimedes is among them, lost souls like captured fireflies.”
The tip of Emmaxis fell with a heavy bell tone, and the priest’s miter dissolved into the earth through the cracks of the tiles, leaving the priest bald and more hideous. “Damn it, Emma!” Xandr groaned, as what-had-been-Urukagina grazed his rising beard hairs, “Start making sense!”
“His power grows from despair,” she responded. “He is the cause of all this, the focus of the sorrow. Only a priest of Hedonia can give the final rites of burial, can let the spirits pass to the next plane. This, Lich of Urukagina, is abusing his priestly authority; he’s not letting them go.”
“Xandr . . .,” Thelana murmured anxiously, “my arrows aren’t helping, and neither is your sword. Cambses got what he wanted; let’s fly!”
In that instant, Xandr found his opportunity, driving Emmaxis to the hilt through the lich’s sternum. But in following the stroke of the sword, he came within reach of the High Priest, who, with skeletal fingers, hooked Xandr by the throat and thumbed at his eyes. Already, Xandr could feel the change, the fringes of his beard whitening.
“Let me show you, and you will know,” the lich of Urukagina said to him. “Let me peel back your eyes–”
He struggled to tear the arms away. They were lean as branches, but possessed an incomprehensible strength, or seemed so, the Batal’s own strength waning as great age weakens a man. Finally, Xandr looked about him, seeing only Emma in the glow of the fire, and the silhouette of Thelana behind. “Cambses!” he shouted. “Where is he?”
Thelana looked about also, but saw no one. With none left to help her beloved, she snatched up a flaming brassiere, spun it overhead like a sling, and tossed it into the face of the lich. What-had-been-Urukagina let out a horrid shriek as embers danced about its robe, and Xandr pulled free. With Cambses’ betrayal, his fear turned to rage, and he hurled himself at the corpse’ back, snatching at the skull, groping at empty eye sockets and loose knit jaws. But it was not the power of his limbs that overcame the abomination, but his courage, his insatiable zeal for good, and the pure vitality that radiated from him, channeled through the conduit of his rage. Remembering Emma’s words, he let himself laugh like a drunken barbarian, and it echoed from the high angled walls and parapets of the unholy shrine, and the High Priest of the Faithless shriveled in his clutches, till the skull came apart in his hands, no more animated than any unearthed from the grave.
In their triumph, Thelana turned her attention to the nearest candelabra stand, tossing it javelin-like toward the entrance. It landed, its oil wicks wafting to smoky ribbons, the lingering flare revealing a contingent of men filing into the niche behind the sliding barrier.
“Don’t leave us!” she shouted, half threateningly.
“I am sorry,” Cambses sounded with sincerity, his face a broken mask of light and shadow in the gloom. “But, no one must know what has transpired here, least of all foreigners.”
“Stop him!” Xandr groaned, but already the wall was rumbling to a close. With a tremendous leap she made for the exit, but a flank of spear-points stopped her short. “We had a pact, Cambses!” she cried. “There is no honor among you Hedonians! You’re nothing but deceivers!”
“No, Thelana, I love truth, and honor. But I love my country more.”
She rolled to a crouch with an arrow nocked to her bow. It sailed low, skewering a bootstrap to a calf muscle. The man folded in agony. Thelana cursed. It was their captain she was aiming for. By the time she got a second arrow, the shutting of the wall resounded in their ears, and as the candelabra rolled about the dank floor, the last of the burning wicks smothered, shrouding them in complete darkness. 
Escape to Chapter 13

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I’ve heard it said by many different people that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was written while the author was on some kind of hallucinogenic drug. I still believe this to be an urban legend, but after finishing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, I can understand why some people might come to that idea. No matter what you’ve seen or read before, nothing can prepare you for the insanity of Lewis Carroll. The films by Disney are significantly more sanitized (pun intended) than this “story”, and I put story in parenthesis because it can only be loosely defined as one. In Alice, all rules go out the window; there is no character development, no conflict, no themes, nothing whatsoever to hold the plot in place. Things happen without any cause and effect relationship (the chapters could be rearranged anyway you please and it would make just as much sense), and the story ends when it ends, for no reason other than Alice wakes up, which, when it happens, is entirely arbitrary. Since it’s all just a dream, anything can and does happen, and unlike fantasy (this isn’t) there are no rules or logic to follow. In fact, if there is a theme in Alice, it may be that conventions are irrelevant, that logic and reason are, in the context of a dream, meaningless. If Carroll does one thing brilliantly, it’s capturing the vague sense of reality you feel while dreaming. In one of the most perplexing and jarring scenes, Alice is having a conversation one moment, and in the next, she is on a train with a bunch of animals. There is no transition whatsoever, and if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought a paragraph or two were missing. All of this nonsense goes to prove a point I have often made, that there are no absolutes in writing. But then the question remains, how did something like this become so popular? Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an enormously successful book, considering the numerous film adaptations and near countless pop culture references made to this day. Before Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, he experimented with a live action adaptation of Alice with cartoon characters drawn directly onto celluloid. Later, the Walt Disney company would make a full length animated feature (1951) and a live action film starring Johnny Depp (2010). Even the Matrix movies make frequent references to Alice, when Neo is told to “follow the White Rabbit” (a girl with a White Rabbit tattoo) and when Morpheus tells Neo, “You must feel like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.” Like Frankenstein, Alice is so ingrained in our culture that everyone seems to know the story without ever having read the book.

But the book’s popularity endures mostly due its place in history. Written in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is very much a product of its time. After all, it was intended for children in 19th century Britain. There are references to playing cards, chess, Humpty Dumpty and other nursery rhymes well known to kids of that age, but modern children, having grown up with Super Mario Bros. and Pokemon, may be hard pressed to relate to it. Adults may find ways to appreciate Alice for historical and literary study, but sadly, its intended audience is forever lost. Many classics written hundreds, even thousands of years ago, stand up to time, but Alice, despite its imaginative charms and wonderful plays on the English language, just isn’t one of them. With countless books for children to choose from these days, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would garner little attention if written today, likely becoming an obscure title.

In my copy of the book, there is an Introduction with some heady philosophical discussion by Tan Lin. Lin writes at length about boredom, children, and the idea of nonsense. He conjectures how children use imagination to overcome the tedium of life and to try and understand the “adult” world, which to them seems nonsensical. Reading through Alice, I sometimes got the same impression, that Carroll was making some allegorical statement, but these moments were quite rare and the story seemed too random for me to consider it much. If there is any philosophical statement to be found here at all, it may be that searching for meaning is meaningless.

     

No comments: . . .

Despite the little voice inside me that is saying, “Don’t do it, Nick!” I am compelled to talk about the issue of feedback, and yes, I realize a lot of this is going to sound like sour grapes, but I feel there is a lot of ignorance that needs to be dispelled.

It’s silly for me to complain really, considering we are bombarded on Facebook, Twitter, and in our e-mails for donations to the Democratic or Republican elections, to save African elephants from poachers or whales from Japanese fishermen, or to help the homeless in America, the list is endless. Quite frankly, I think modern day America, and the rest of the industrialized world, is emotionally saturated. There are just so many things we are told to care about that we end up caring about nothing. In addition, you can’t visit a single web page without ads hitting your eyeballs from every possible direction, nor can you hope to escape the attention seekers of the world, like zombies coming after your wallet and your brain, from TV, radio, telephone and snail mail. As I see it, this is a serious problem, something I call information pollution. It’s bad enough to make me want to hit my bicycle with nothing but me and 35 miles of Pinellas Trail, or get entirely naked to wander like prehistoric man through the woods (only problem is where to put my car keys). So believe you me when I say, I completely understand why you’d rather not respond to something I’ve written. In fact, I am quite baffled whenever I do get responses, some of which come from around the globe. But for my close friends and family, or for anyone who knows someone personally with the writer’s disease, you cannot begin to imagine how important your input is. Really, you don’t. If you’re a writer, you needn’t read any further, but if you aren’t, think back to any important endeavor you’ve ever undertaken. Think of all the dinners you may have cooked for your wife or husband. Think of the handmade presents you gave to a friend or lover. Think of the crappy crayon drawing you gave to your mom when you were six that she hung on the refrigerator door. Now think of the anxiety you felt about whether they would like what you did, and multiply that feeling by a million—that is how most writers feel, even published ones, according to The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes. There is not a doubt in my mind that J.K Rowling is suffering some anxiety right now over how people will feel about her latest book, The Casual Vacancy. What’s worse, if the writer in your life is serious about his or her craft, that feeling of anxiety never goes away. We wake up with it. We go to sleep with it. It’s there when we’re having lunch, driving to work, or making love. It’s a perpetual problem and it makes me often hate this disease. This is no joke folks. Just look up writers and suicide on Google and see how many matches you get.

The thing is, there is a great deal of misconception about writers and feedback. There is this false perception that we’re just a bunch of egomaniacs, hungry for love and attention. If that were the case, I’d say screw us; there are certainly people more deserving of praise than writers. But that isn’t the case. When I get praise, like, “Hey, that was great!” I feel good for a while and I appreciate it, but that doesn’t really help anything. Great compared to what? And who are you, anyway, to judge me one way or the other? But feedback does get me excited, because it means I am making a connection; I am communicating, and that’s what writing is, a dialogue between a writer and a reader. My goal is to reach people, to express the inexpressible. I neither care for fame or riches. I only want a small audience of listeners. The connection I make with a reader is richer, deeper, more real and more meaningful, to me, than many of the friendships I’ve had and even many romantic relationships. When nobody is responding, I am forced to wonder, is anyone listening? Does anyone care? Am I alone? It’s a lot like calling out in the darkness hoping for a response. Being a writer is an intensely lonely process, because nobody can fathom the work involved, the tireless edits and revisions, the exhausting questions that wear away at my brain until I can feel the neurons fraying. Which brings me to my second point. Offer criticism. It’s far more useful than empty praise. And I don’t mean, “Hey, you suck!” I mean, offer direction, tell me how a story affected you or didn’t, how a character moved you or left you cold, and why. Sometimes, a single honest piece of advice can soothe the doubt from my mind for a lifetime. For instance, I ask myself, Is my writing easy to understand? Or is it too poetic? When one of my fans told me, “Your writing is very smooth,” (thank you, Noelle Lew) I knew I could move forward with greater confidence than before. Input like that is invaluable. Unimaginably so.

Sometimes I’ll meet someone months or years after sending them a story, and they’ll come to me and say, “Hey, I really liked that book,” and my response to them is, “WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T YOU TELL ME? CAN YOU NOT POSSIBLY UNDERSTAND HOW IMPORTANT THAT IS TO ME?” But in reality, I just nod slowly, offering a timid, “Oh, really? You read that? Ha ha ha . . . yeah, thanks.”

The point is this, I know you’re busy, and I know some of you don’t care about fiction, don’t in fact read anything but newspaper headlines and STOP signs; but if you have a friend or family member who writes, and you have been known to pick up the occasional bestseller church conspiracy/sexy vampire/S&M bondage novel, don’t underestimate how important your feedback is to them. Having a writer friend, brother, sister, mother, father, cousin etc. and not giving them feedback is like watching them standing in the rain from your bedroom window without ever offering them into your home. Essentially, you’re not a friend and you don’t care about them, OR, you have no clue what they’re going through, which is why I ultimately forgive and keep my friends, because I assume they just don’t know, which is why I felt I had to make this post. You know, sour grapes.  

   

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 11

Chapter 11
The Maelstrom
Circling high above the turmoil, raven eyes watched, as Thelana and Arrow burst from the stables and Meridius erupted into flame, as the grayquid were vanquished. When all appeared calm, she glided from her crow’s nest again onto the ship.
The feeling of transformation was like the climax that comes with copulation—it stirred every fiber of her being, the feathers sprouting to tickle her as bones and flesh shrank away. It was at once nauseating and liberating, like casting away heavy manacles while plummeting down a cliff. Now, in human form, she felt supple and heavy. Hastily, she snatched up her robes lest anyone see her unclothed body in the dim corner of the ship’s stables.
Climbing to the top deck, Emma surveyed their situation. Before them was a thing she had never seen before, but had heard much about, the Temple of Sargon. How much of it extended below the water, she could only guess, but it was already more massive than she had imagined.
“We have only twenty-seven men,” Archimedes was saying to Cambses, “one of our oars is broke thanks to the Batal, and Nabonus is no more! Who will navigate?”
Cambses gritted his teeth, fingering the stone ring on his hand nervously. “Do not tell me my crew perished in vain, now that we are so near!”
Having witnessed many acts heroism, Emma overcame her timidity and attempted to be of use, approaching the men on soft feet. “What seems to be the problem, Captain?”
Archimedes stared at her aghast. “Where in Sargon’s briny beard did you come from? Has she been aboard the whole time?”
“There is no problem,” Cambses answered her, “should my men show some backbone. Look!” and he pointed, describing what she could plainly see, “There’s a maelstrom about the pyramid; the sea is drawn to it, and the ruins that linger beneath the surface will tear the hull apart.”
“And at half crew,” the old man added, “we’ll have less than half the power to resist the current! We’re at Sargon’s mercy, like a dinghy without a rudder!”
Xandr and Thelana, returning from the laborious task of returning the horses to the cargo hold, were quick to join the debate. “I can row for two men,” he boasted.
“And I for three,” Thelana quipped.
Emma glared at them both and shrugged. “Doubtful I could row for one.”
“Then it is agreed!” said Cambses. “Archimedes, you are the most able sailor, but the years have been unkind to your limbs; you shall man the tiller, and I will join in the rowing with Xandr and the lady Ilmarin, if she truly feels to the task.”
“I counted more grayquid dead from my hands, than from you or your men,” she answered.
“Pulling a bow is not like pulling an oar, miss. This is man’s work if ever there was, and it will wear every part of you like wheat on the millstone. But since I am short of recruits, you’ll have to do. Keep with the pace or lay off.”
Xandr rubbed his beard, still moist from the sea, and looked out over the railing at that uninviting monument. When last he laid eyes upon it, it was from the clouds, soaring upwards in the arms of a bird man. Within its confines he had been witness to many horrors, to the massacre of the Hedonian people by vengeful merquid, to the suicide of the High Priest’s young daughter and the revelation of an unspeakable secret. He wondered what Cambses or his crewmen knew of these events, whether any of them would believe his recollection of that fateful day, when doom came to the city. But beneath the dungeons of the temple, he had also met Thelana, and his lonesome wanderings had come to an end. It was impossible to believe that only a year before he’d climbed those steps into the pyramid temple’s cavernous interior. So much transpired since, it seemed a lifetime ago. Looking again upon those steps, he turned to Cambses, saying, “Should we reach the foundation without capsizing, where do we anchor? The stair is broken and the archway is too high above.”
“There!” Thelana pointed, before Cambses could contemplate the matter, “We will make for the fallen obelisk, away from the maelstrom, and from there cross to the pyramid. Ships are not my trade, but I am well versed in strongholds such as these.”
“Too risky,” Xandr replied. “Besides, how do we get inside once we cross?”
“We can climb the outer wall,” she said, “as I did once, but with the help of the vines.”
“Then to the obelisk we go,” Cambses answered. “Every man to an oar! . . . And woman also.”
Thelana fought with the oar and it fought back. Whether she was rowing well enough for three men, or even for one, she could not guess. The Mare Nostrum rocked and tumbled violently, and with each shudder and groan of its ribbed frame a swell of water crested hard against them, blinding her with spray. The sea poured onto the benches, numbing her quivering body. Sounds of angry waves rolled about like thunder, drowning any drumming that might have guided their strokes. Only Cambses’ shouts rang above the din, but in the maelstrom’s fury, his commands came in fragments and lone syllables. Whether the crew maintained an even pacing, she was doubtful. Through the porthole, she could make out the oars, flailing like an upturned centipede. Somewhere, Xandr wrestled against his own oar, but she could not hope to see him through the blinding mist and the incessant pounding of waves.
Should Emma have remained in raven form, she could have watched the pentaconter climb toward the base of the pyramid, carried by the winds and the vortex like current, over a rolling swell of blue and white webbing. Teetering at the water’s apex, where the air blasted the surf to streaming white vapors, the whole of the ship pitched on its broadside and went down. Oars cracked down the middle against the submerged ruins, but the ignorant crew continued to battle the water, with desperation, with broken shafts, gritting their teeth and swearing profanities.
Now the sea rose up to assume a vaguely human shape, and a wave like a hand lifted the Mare Nostrum up into the sky, as if Sargon himself regarded them like a toddler would a bath toy. And then, as though uninterested in what it saw, the wave hurled the pentaconter down, letting it skim along its broadside toward the sharp end of the collapsed obelisk.
Cambses’ keen eyes caught sight of the threat, knowing from a succession of naval battles that should the Mare Nostrum be rammed on its broadside, it’d break apart like a stalk of wheat, outer planking, ribcage and all. Their only chance was to rotate the ship into a stronger angle, where it could take the hit, where it had been designed to take a hit. He only hoped his men would hear him.
“Reverse oars, men!” he bellowed, as loudly as his lungs could carry. “Turn this ship around or we’re dead men!”       
Somehow, whether from hearing the command or understanding the threat on their own, the oarsmen reacted with miraculous uniformity. Every oar struck the water at a precise angle, in a way only experienced sailors could manage, rotating the pentaconter backward. All Thelana and Xandr could do is brace themselves in their benches, and Emma against a support beam in the deck below. The obelisk grew rapidly in their sights—to immense proportions—until its basic shape vanished and only a wall of ancient writing spread across them.
The thunder of cedar striking granite made Thelana and Xandr certain that the ship was destroyed. But to Cambses experienced ears, the pentaconter was saved, its stern knocking and grating against the obelisk intact. He released his oar, the wood a dull crimson from the blood of his palms, and stood contentedly. He made his way across a floor of seawater, sweat and vomit, and accosted Thelana directly.
“You said you could get us up this slope. I got us this far. It’s your turn to lead.”
The waters were calmer about the temple complex. Only where the surf broke against the obelisk wall, a white mist surged, showering the already damp crew. Cambses hand picked ten of his finest warriors, including old Archimedes for his craftiness, to join Xandr, Thelana, and Emma into the pyramid. They donned their breastplates and greaves, torn and tainted with gore, slipped helmets to their heads, set spears and shields to their backs, and followed. Thelana had only her tunic, which was in tatters and concealed little of her lithe figure, but it was also damp, which made her feel numb with cold. She agonized over whether she should cast the hateful thing away, to let it vanish forever under the sea, but the rapacious eyes of the oarsmen made her feel ashamed, despite never having worn clothes for the first decade and a half of her life. Xandr came behind them, his blond beard and braid disheveled, his pale eyes impassive. Emmaxis gleamed faintly from his shoulder, a kilt was about his waist, and his powerful, scarred torso was bare but for a simple baldric. Making their way forward, a raven fluttered atop his opposite shoulder, and Archimedes turned and stared with wonderment.
“Now where did you come from, little bird?” he remarked playfully, reaching out a hand. Its black beak snapped and he snatched his finger away with a yelp. “Bad omen, these wretched birds.” 
The Batal simply grinned and followed the trail led by Thelana, already a dozen paces above. They followed her example, planting foot and hand into the fissures and niches formed by the weathering winds and waters, and where there were none to find, the glyphs carved deep into the stone served instead. For some time they climbed this way, across the width of the obelisk to the vines growing on the other side, which were as sturdy and thick as rope.
Atop the slanted surface of the obelisk, the tail of the company of climbers could see the whole topside of the Mare Nostrum, tethered to the jutting ruin, bobbing with the current. Sea spray no longer wetted their heels, but the air grew thin and icy, and dragonflies the size of Xandr’s hand buzzed about their ears.
Where the obelisk had crashed into the pyramid, there was an irregular shaped opening, like the entrance into a cave. Crouched panther like, Thelana moved through it, and the roar of the sea hushed to a whisper. The quiet was startling. Jagged bits of debris scraped her bare feet as she climbed further and deeper into the cave of debris. Feeling blindly along the wall, her sole touched upon more refined granite, and she knew she had come to an inner passage, albeit a slanted one.
Signaling to the others, Cambses and his men followed Thelana, crawling on their bellies, awkwardly with shield and spear, through the rocky aperture. Xandr guarded the rear, with Emma perched on his shoulder, slipping more stealthily within. Archimedes used his flint and tinder to light two torches, and in doing so, the darkness receded to reveal the walls, roof, and floor of the hall. Since the whole of it was slanted, it formed a diamond-shaped passage, which was disquieting to the already spooked seamen.
“These are the mason’s passages,” Cambses murmured. “They were used when the pyramid was being built, as ramps to drag the heavy stones. We are fortunate. They should lead us down to the altar where we will find what we’re after.”
Cambses instincts proved accurate. The hall sloped ever so perceptibly downward, the fourteen encroachers carefully making way, feeling along smooth walls to orient themselves to the crooked passage, while Thelana at the head studied the stability of their surroundings with nimble feet and fingers. Ceiling and floor reflected like gold about them, dimming as they crawled.
After a short, awkward march, the light of their torches hit upon a solid barrier, glowing faintly as they approached. It was the corner of the pyramid, but the hall continued, turning nearly back on itself and at a steeper incline, and they followed. Here the walls were damp. Sheets of water flowed from seams where the walls met the roof, steadily pooling about their feet as they went, numbing their limbs, increasing their misery. Thelana could only pray that the many tons of masonry not bury them, as they would have little warning should it occur and no time to escape to where they came in.
On they trudged, their minds turned to unspoken fears, three times across the diagonal of the pyramid in a zigzag pattern, till coming to the foundation where the water deepened to Thelana’s knees. The passage ended in a narrow alcove, where the light hinted at patterns etched in stone, at carved human shapes and runes.
Archimedes felt along the alcove, as though he did not trust his eyes. “Sealed!” he exclaimed. “There is nowhere left to go!”
“No, Archimedes,” Cambses replied, his voice dipping to unusually low octaves, “I was prepared for this.” He handed his torch to the old sailor and lifted his hand ceremoniously. The strange stone ring reflected dully upon his finger, and he stooped in the torchlight, examining the features of the barrier more carefully. Finding a round, coin-sized hole, he clenched his ring and thrust it forward. There was a series of heavy clicks, like the unlocking of an immense bolt, as he slowly turned his fist, and with an echo of stone against stone, the wall slid into a recess. Cambses brushed the dust from the plume of his helmet and peered through the veil of darkness and into a waiting chamber.
Suddenly, he turned toward his followers, suddenly brandishing his gladius. There was a mad gleam in his eye. “Swear to me, by my sword, that what you witness here today you will never speak of! Swear by pain of torture and death.”
The men, including Archimedes, stared at their captain with bewilderment. They were numb, near exhaustion, and filled with dread, and here was a new thing to weigh on them, an oath to the death. It was an over taxation of their faculties.   
“Swear it!” he commanded. And without understanding, or even the capacity for disagreement, each man touched a hand upon the gladius, all except Xandr and Thelana, at whom Cambses intently glowered, but said nothing. 

On to Chapter 12
Retreat to Chapter 10