The Problem of Sex

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I don’t like sex. Yeah yeah, I can hear the jokes already. Comedian Dimitri Martin did it best in his book, This is a Book, in a chapter titled, Better than Sex, where he lists all of the things he once considered better than sex, which includes most anything and everything. He then proceeds to list what is, for him, “worse than sex.” The punch-line? He really hadn’t liked his old girlfriend, and she was his first. All joking aside, that’s not what I mean by “I don’t like sex.” In fact, I enjoy it quite a bit, thankyouverymuch. I am far from an asexual person. When I say “I don’t like sex,” I am referring to the whole enterprise, and all of its societal implications. Like Punky Brewster explained (I know, look it up) after her mother gave her “the talk,” sex is hilarious, from the perspective of an alien unfamiliar with Earthling biology.

First and foremost, we should consider what sex is for, because people tend to forget it’s all about babies. From the increased arousal that comes with puberty to the change in pitch in a woman’s voice to its ejaculative climax, the goal has always been babies babies babies. Of course, we tend to ignore Mother Nature’s designs because sex is, and has always been, a messy and wasteful production. Without bothering to Google it, I can confidently say that I—by myself—can repopulate a small country in an afternoon. And women could, should they grow their eggs in tubes, bring twelve new people into this world every year, if not more. So what are we to do with all of this extra, er . . . stuff? Have fun, that’s what! But here we run into a plethora of problems, problems which society has repeatedly struggled to rectify, with limited or disastrous results.

When it comes to A+B, evolution has developed in us contradictory instincts. On the one hand, we desire as many partners as possible, to more broadly spread our genetic information. Conversely, we have also evolved to commit to a single partner, to aid in the difficult and often life-threatening birthing process, and to better raise children. Between these two extremes, humans have long played a psychological and sociological tug-of-war.

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My ethics professor told us in class that sexual morality runs the gamut between one partner, for life, to the rules of tennis. In this analogy, you can have intercourse with anyone you can play tennis with: a woman, a man, two women at once, a group of people, a relative, you get the picture. From the Ancient Egyptians to the Puritans, rules regarding who gets to do it with whom has constantly changed, with nary a satisfying consensus emerging. Religion is often blamed for what some consider excessive prudishness, but the rules established by religion are but a manifestation of our own biases and emotions. Until recently, gay sex was regarded taboo, only because the majority of the people making the rules were not gay themselves. A case was put forth that homosexual intercourse is unnatural, in that gay sex cannot lead to procreation. This, of course, ignored the obvious point that most sex acts never lead to offspring. Confusion about sexual mores, particularly when it comes to homosexuality, has led to violence against gays, and in many countries to this day, can mean a death sentence.

Jealousy drives our values. It is the reason marriage vows regarding intercourse exist, and why women, often viewed as property, were confined to the home in earlier times. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, women are still forced into bags, to cover the parts of themselves that may lead to unwanted sexual attention, and in some parts of Africa, young Muslim girls are subject to genital mutilation to curb their desires. The Free Love Movement of the 60’s attempted to rectify this, adopting a philosophy whereby anyone was free to boink anyone else, but the movement failed, because jealousy remained too great a factor. And it isn’t hard to see why. Up until a half century ago, determining with any certainty the father of a newborn was impossible. Men feared infidelity because they did not wish to rear a child who did not bear his code.

Looking beyond social norms, we find trouble stemming from the desire for sex. To satisfy our driving need to copy our DNA, we’ve invented prostitution and pornography, which has led to legal complications, the mistreatment of women, the proliferation of drug-use (in some instances) and an entire underground society of second class citizens. We are already seeing efforts to normalize this kind of work, now called “sex work,” and though I do not wish to delve into this debate, I will say that I could never condemn someone for doing something that causes no harm, but at the same time, never be content should one of my children (boy or girl) become involved in such a career.

Far from what the Lifetime Channel will tell you, divorce is rarely the result of infidelity. People in happy, committed relationships do not seek excitement “on the side.” That being said, infidelity remains a symptom of unsatisfied urges, and it only takes a single moment for a marriage to dissolve to the point of no return. Without this highly symbolic and hurtful action, loving unions might find greater opportunity to endure, and families to remain together.

Of course, if we’re going to talk about the problems of sex, we can’t ignore rape, and by greater extent, child molestation. The #MeToo movement has only recently shed light on the numbers of sex related victims. By some estimates, one in four women will be sexually abused in some way in their lifetimes. Even among those fortunate enough to escape victimhood, most women live in a state of fear, never quite knowing who to trust, or where to find a safe space. Usually, it’s not so much a matter of a stranger jumping out of a bush, but a coworker or employer, or even a boyfriend who pushes just a little too hard to get what he wants. Even decent, innocent guys (and there are plenty of those too) suffer from abuse directed at women, and the backlash of the #MeToo movement, afraid of being perceived as dangerous. This has led, unfortunately, to a counter-backlash, and to the rise of misogynistic groups like (some) Incels, and the rabid anti-SJW movement on YouTube, who’ve made the Ghostbusters reboot and the recent Captain Marvel films matters of unending controversy. 

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What really broke the camel’s back, for me, is the deeply disturbing Michael Jackson documentary, Leaving Neverland. I recommend it only if you can stomach it, but if you’re a child of the 80s who grew up with Jackson’s music, like I did, you will find it heartbreaking. And yet the documentary helps shed light on the way in which those in positions of influence, like musical celebrities or, in the case of the Catholic Church, men of the cloth, abuse their positions to satisfy their urges. As Leaving Neverland makes clear, pedophilia is a mental disorder, as the idolized megastar could not have had much difficulty finding women to sleep with him. But Jackson did not show any interest in women, or in adults of the same sex. Instead, he manipulated the trust of the children who worshipped him, who believed their hero could do no wrong. As the documentary shows, the web of lies these children are forced to bear, even into adulthood, becomes as damaging as the abuse itself.

Taking ALL of this into account, it is difficult to see how such a simple biological function can be worth the damages. If by ridding the world of sex, we also rid the world of fear and harassment, the mistreatment of women, the breaking up of families, and the irreparable damage resulting from rape and child abuse, is this not a fair exchange? The best aspect of sex, IMO, are not the minutes (seconds?) of pleasure derived from the act, but the emotional bonds formed in the process. As an expression of love, sex is hard to beat, but we need to recognize that it comes at a serious cost.

Now, if this argument sounds bizarre, maybe even a little cult-like, not to fear. Although Christian monks were known to castrate themselves, like dogs, and to wear spiked rings (with the spikes on the inside) over their penises to prevent nocturnal emissions, among other sins, I am not suggesting going the Heaven’s Gate route and neutering ourselves. Destroying a part of what makes us human isn’t the answer. Like any societal ill, we must tackle these issues head on, by adopting the Socratic method, and examining ourselves with openness and honesty. We must recognize that we are sexual beings, and subject to desire, but that above all else we must learn to treat one another with love, respect and compassion.

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There is a popular meme that has been going around for some time, featuring a topless girl, with the the words “Still Not Asking For It” written over her body. While I agree with the overall sentiment, in that women own their bodies and should not be subject to harassment, I have long found the meme to be misleading, because it suggests that women cannot be sexual beings, and cannot have their own desires. Some women do, in fact, dress for sex. It is hardcoded into our DNA, just as birds sing and peacocks spread their wings to find a mate. And the problem is, men know this, and become angry when a half-naked woman struts by them, only to reject their advances. I think a better, more honest meme would be, “Not Asking You For It.”

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A nudist woman is neither “asking for it” nor “not asking,” she simply is.

Ultimately, this brings us to my pet philosophy. Contrary to popular belief, nudists are not anti-sex. But what we have long argued, rather, is that we do not need clothing to prevent us from raping and molesting one another. We believe that human beings have the capacity to treat one another with respect, without suffering abuse or harassment, regardless of what a person is wearing, or how they are posed, or whether they appear to be “asking for it.” While there are uncomfortable similarities between children being indoctrinated into abusive relationships and children born into nudist households, in that both deal with societal taboos, the differences between them are crucial. People who prey on the innocent rely on secrecy and deception. Nudism is first and foremost about openness and honesty, which is why so many children born into the lifestyle go on to raise their own children in the same way. Nudism is uniquely optimistic with regard to human potential, trusting in humanity’s capacity to rise above its animalistic nature. In being naked and innocent around friends, family and those of the opposite sex, we learn to see one another not as objects of lust, but as fellow human beings. While pornographers and exhibitionists continually mistake the movement for a fetish, nudism is, at its core, about innocence. In a Buddhist-like sense, the goal of nudism is to free ourselves from unwanted desires. But while I would not go so far as to say nudism is the answer to the problem of sex, it is definitely a step in the right direction. Only when we learn to overcome our instinctual drives can we begin to conquer our moral failings.

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Nudism frees us from our desires

 

Ages of Aenya: Thelana Meets Horde

In this exclusive excerpt, Thelana and Emma (not pictured) encounter a nightmarish entity in the shadows of Gloomwood.

DarkForest 

Emma, so bold a moment before, so prepared to die at the hand of the wild woman’s dagger, was again seized by fear. They were consumed by darkness, by cold, and by the unknown. Blindly and clumsily she ran, over roots she could not see, stems catching in her hair, thorns grazing her cheeks and wrists and ankles. But the Ilmarin was there, leading her by the wrist, her presence reassuring. Could it be a ruse? Was she being led to the slaughter? No, she refused to believe that. Something was in their midst, something terrible—even Emma, with her dull senses, could feel it.

They stopped. Emma searched the darkness for the female silhouette. “What?” she implored. “What is it?”

The Ilmarin’s eyes caught the moonlight and glittered like emeralds. And it was there that Emma first saw it, reflected in her irises, a dark mass. “I said run!” She screamed it now, letting go of Emma’s hand completely.

Like a hare rustling through the bush, Thelana was gone. Emma tried running but forgot how, her knees catching in her skirts, her heels sinking at every turn. She could not see where she was going or what she was escaping from, but if it was bad enough to frighten Thelana, she knew it wise to keep moving. What could it be, unless . . .

. . . the giant?

She hesitated. If she could only go back to their encampment, rouse Xandr and Grimosse, but every direction was the same subtle outline of forest, a maze of shadows and silhouettes leading into pitch blackness.

“Oh Strom. Oh Strom . . .” She repeated the mantra aloud for the gods to hear, but she was alone in a vast dark nothingness. The only other sounds were her irregular gasps for air, and the flailing of a weak heart, which she was certain would fail her.

Calm yourself, Emma. You can think through this.

She looked to the moon and stars to find her bearings, as she knew sailors to do, but the heavens were gone, utterly and inexplicably gone. The darkness was a solid mass she could reach out and touch, and then the sky was moving, and Emma was seized with such terror that reason abandoned her completely.

A hand pulled her into the bushes. Thelana was there again, invisible. She pointed through the prickly leaves with her blade. “Do you see it?”

“I don’t see anything,” Emma replied, as quietly as she could. She had spoken in haste, without willing herself to look. But it was there, waiting, pondering, and perhaps searching. Following Thelana’s dagger, she could make out the broken line of trees in the vast gloom and the orbs like glowing embers. The air was crackling around it and Emma’s hair was prickling, the long strands twisting and writhing in the current, and somehow she knew the orbs to be eyes, knew that those sentient embers were focused upon them. She could feel them seeing into her. This was neither giant nor horg, but a being of an entirely different order.

“It knows we’re here,” Emma murmured.

“No—” Thelana began, but she did not have time to argue. The bush whispered and Emma felt herself alone again, a fleeting voice calling back, imploring her, “Move!” When she looked again, the dark mass was expanding in her direction.

Wet leaves slipped under her soles, making it difficult to gain traction. She groped blindly for a limb or a trunk. The stomping of some immense, bipedal thing shook the small bones of her ankles and rattled her eardrums. Wood shattered—an explosive cracking sound—followed by the hiss and thump of felled trees. Whole elms toppled next to her, shuddering as they struck the ground, groaning as they collided with others. Branches smacked her face, bloodying her lips, but there was no pain, only the primal urge to continue moving.

Descending into a depression, deep in the twisting paths of Gloomwood, she reached the limit of exertion, where even terror could push no further. Emma caught fleeting snatches of moonlight and silver streaks of stars. She paused, her lungs full of fire, each breath coming short. All was quiet.

A severe sense of aloneness hit her. She felt like a small child having lost its mother, and realized she would have liked to look upon her father once more, that she longed for even Thelana’s company. I was alone in this world and shall die this way. “It can’t be far behind,” she murmured, finding comfort in her own voice.

The thing had not given up pursuit. It was at arm’s length, as it had always been, silent as a shadow, and with awful clarity Emma came to accept it. She turned, seeking its description, but was left with only vague impressions. Like something beyond the boundaries of natural law, the moonlight seemed unwilling to reveal it.

She considered running again, but was wracked with fatigue. Resigned to Fate’s loom, she awaited whatever was to happen.

Many voices filled the silence. They spoke as one. It was so strange and unexpected a sound, she could not be certain whether it came from her own mind. A glove blotted out the moon and her feet lifted. She was weightless. He was holding her like a marionette, on invisible strings, its ember eyes glowing all around.

She could feel his presence like needles in her brain. Her every memory flashed across her mind’s eye—every shameful thought, every guilty association, every desire—even those she was too ashamed to admit to herself. Her essence lay open, like a book, helpless as he poked and prodded within her.

Reality was torn away like a veil. Stars and moons and the surrounding woods became immaterial. She saw Titian and Midiana, Anu and Eru, and all the places in Eldin’s book come into vivid focus, sights that defied possibility, that could only be dream. She felt herself lifting, far above the realms of her own thought into that of the other, into worlds beyond and behind the one she was born into. Her mind was open to his, a window to the frightful images that were flitting by it, things her psyche was ill-prepared to decipher—she was like a fish falling from the sky, an infant born a thousand times over, the scenery ever-changing. There were landscapes with glassy mountain towers and acid oceans and impossible canyons, and clusters of suns and cities in drifting bubbles and crustacean-like beings arguing the politics of their civilization. There were cephalopod-like monsters of unthinkable vastness, and life forms of such perplexing arrangement as to challenge the most basic assumptions of biology. The images continued to flow, violently, beyond her capacity to maintain her sense of self. Knowledge was drowning her, would kill her, she knew, and for the first time in her life she was desperate for ignorance. It was not long before she could not remember whether Northendell had been her home, or just another of the falling vistas. The colossal intellect behind those glowing eyes was the only constant, radiating such gravity that she felt her sanity disintegrating, yet among these many images, one caught hold of her, and like a raft she clung to it. It was Thelana, staring in horror at what Emma could only guess was her own floating body. Try as she might, Emma could not hold the image long. A vortex was opening somewhere, swallowing all realities into a dark void and she was being swept into it.

WE ARE HORDE, the voices said. STATE THE PURPOSE.


 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!? FIND OUT IN AGES OF AENYA!!!!

 

Horde by Bazarewski

A closer look at Horde, courtesy of Filip Bazarewski

The Problem of the Penis

Warning: This article contains the word penis. It actually comes up, a lot. (Sorry). You’ve been warned.

I think it’s time we talked about the elephant in the room, and by elephant, I mean penis. Nudists like to wax poetic about the feeling of freedom you get from discarding your clothing, as do I, while ignoring what most people find objectionable about public nakedness. Let’s be honest, nobody outside of Saudi Arabia is really opposed to seeing your epidermis, and men aren’t being arrested for wearing speedos in public. Rather, it’s that tiny, 5% region of the body we criminalize, and that extra 5% nudists are fighting to make normal. For a nudist, a bikini is too much of a burden. What we want is to be completely, entirely, 100% clothes free, and that means exposing our genitals. And therein lies the problem.

For most textiles (that’s you non-nudists), the thinking goes something like this: genitals are sex organs, and the only people who should be seeing them are those with whom you are about to have intercourse. Displaying your penis or vagina to innocent bystanders is tantamount to propositioning them for sex, and, following this line of reasoning, exposing oneself to a minor is equivalent to pedophilia. Not surprisingly, outrage erupted over a nudist event at a Waterworld in Britain, with textiles fuming, ‘Good grief. Under fives go free. Horrendous. I’m genuinely shocked. This needs to be stopped.’ Another person asked: ‘Why can’t they make it adult only? No issue with that. But no kids.’ While a third wrote: ‘This is vile having NAKED children around NAKED adults is not ok, simple as that.’ Well, of course these people are outraged, and I would be too, if my kids were being invited to some sort of sexual event. But that’s the whole point of nudism: it isn’t sexual. 

If nudists ever wish to live in a world free of body taboos, we must tackle these misconceptions head on. We must change people’s perceptions when it comes to genitals, because while a true nudist isn’t focused on these parts per se, the textile community is.

But between the two varieties of male and female organs, the penis is by far the bigger offender (these puns write themselves, honestly!), and the reasons are multifold, I think. One reason may be that, unlike the vagina, which is largely internal, the penis just sort of sticks out there, demanding attention. So rarely do we see a penis outside of pornography, we tend to forget that its basic function, 99% of the time, is for waste removal. The unrealistic and often grotesque depictions of the male organ on the Internet also leads to unhealthy obsessions over appearance, and further the notion that the penis can only be seen in a sexual context. The artist portraying my naked hero, Xandr, gave the character an “enviable” package, but I’ve always imagined my hero closer to Michelangelo’s David in scale. After all, it’s hard fighting a monster with your most sensitive parts flailing around. Realistically, Xandr has to be a “grower,” which leads me to wonder whether the Ancient Greeks competed in the Olympics without a stitch and without a qualm owing to similar, more manageable physiques. Unfortunately, pornography has taught us that anything less than an infant’s arm is unmanly and embarrassing.

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Too big for battle?

Unfortunately for us in the real world, the penis is too often the star of the show in cases of sexual misconduct. Comedian Louis C.K. became a pariah after masturbating in front of two female coworkers. Billionaire film producer Harvey Weinstein found himself in similar hot water for casually leaving his bathrobe open for aspiring actresses to behold. Nudism does not condone this kind of behavior, of course, and Weinstein wasn’t a nudist, but still we must ask where, precisely, does one draw the line? Ignoring the numerous other, more serious charges against him, what if Weinstein had claimed that he just felt more free in the raw, and believed there was no shame in the human body? For men and women alike, the unexpected sight of a nude person can feel like a violation, or at the very least, an unwanted invitation. I avoid telling friends and coworkers about my lifestyle for fear they will misinterpret my intentions.

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You can just feel the creepiness!

All this is exacerbated by the increasingly troubled and confusing time we are living in. A lot of men avoid women they may be attracted to, never showing signs of interest, for fear of being deemed a creep. Sure, there are plenty of genuine creeps out there, but this has made women all the more wary of men, and men all the more afraid to come across the wrong way. So what is a genuine male nudist to do? While I’d never recommend suddenly stripping in front of a female coworker, particularly in a private setting, sometimes the line between misconduct and freedom becomes blurred. Imagine a female jogger on a long stretch of beach, suddenly crossing paths with a strange man sunbathing in the nude. Despite the jogger having encroached upon his space, does he suddenly become a sex offender? Even though, as any reasonable juror might determine, the man showed zero interest in accosting her? Now let’s consider a similar scenario with a slight tweak. Another man, let’s call him Fred, knows a woman who likes to jog along the beach, so he walks to the end of it and strips himself bare, waiting for an “accidental” encounter. Is Fred acting like a creepy predator? Hell yes! Because context, or intent rather, is everything. Convincing the world that there are other reasons for wanting to be naked, that are entirely innocent, is the biggest challenge facing the nudist community. And when I say naked, I don’t mean it in some vague, artistic sense, but really naked, as in putting your vagina or penis on display, for any innocent stranger to come upon (damn these puns!).

Even if we were to avoid Weinstein/Louis C.K. type situations, this bit of exposure is a hard sell, because the penis remains the boogeyman of the free body movement. It’s what scares textiles the most, and what even genuine naturists often shy away from. Sure, we like to let it all hang out, but pretend we don’t notice the baggage between every male’s thighs. If a nudist posts vacation photos, only rarely does the penis make an appearance. I, for one, get outraged when someone sends me a “dick pick,” even though you could say, “A penis is natural, like an ear or an elbow, and you wouldn’t get incensed by an ear pick, would you?” Clearly, there is a difference between the two. And yet, I maintain that body parts—ALL body parts—are inherently innocent. Just as the middle finger is no more offensive, in some cultures, than any other, or the word “fuck” could either mean sea lion, in French, or flashlight, “fucko,” in Greek, the penis isn’t offensive on its own. Consider the penis of a toddler who is running playfully around the living room, or that of a dead man being prepped for autopsy. But when an erect penis unexpectedly rears its ugly head in your Twitter feed, there is intent behind that image. The poster intended to offend, shock and provoke. And, contrary to nudist philosophy, a dick pick focuses on the genitalia and nothing else, divorcing that part of the anatomy from the person it’s attached to. It’s offensive because it is dehumanizing, and because it can only be interpreted as sexual in nature. Clearly, we need intent to find offense, and this is the message naturists need to be making: We are not coming on to you. If you see me naked, if you see my penis, it isn’t because I want to have sex with you. Sorry.

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Letting it hang out

Now you might be saying, why all the fuss over a penis? Can’t you just keep it in your pants, you dirty dirty sicko? A valid argument, to be certain. We can sing the joys of nakedness all day long, but so could any pedophile. We need, rather, to defend our position on the grounds of freedom and innocence. This isn’t to say freedom is absolute. We can’t argue in favor of rape and murder, but public nudity does no harm, neither physically nor psychologically, and so then becomes a matter of personal choice. The case could be made that such a personal choice may lead to an increase in sexual misconduct, and to be entirely honest, I cannot know with certainty whether that would be the case. I can only assume that in a world without nakedness taboos, sex crimes could only decrease. In normalizing every part of the body, we excise the Pavlovian reflex that results from ogling the flesh, and instead, become aroused for nobler and more socially acceptable reasons. We would get excited by love and intelligence, and by the person within. If that sounds like empty rhetoric, consider other countries with lax or nonexistent nudity laws. Heck, the Catholic Church is rife with child molestation charges, but how often do you hear the same about a family nudist resort?

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Church is a far more dangerous place to send your kids!

Now let’s imagine that in 2020, we elect our first nudist president (hey, it could have been Benjamin Franklin!) and let’s assume he pushes to make public nudity legal. Great! But then, after a few years’ time, statistics show sex crimes skyrocketing. Where there were tens of rapes per year, there are now tens of thousands. Barring no other catalyst, I would be inclined to admit, “Hey, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” But such a social experiment has yet to happen. Instead, we live in a world where we are free to drink, resulting in thousands of motor vehicle deaths per year, and buy cigarettes, which results in thousands of cancer deaths per year, and buy guns, which results in tens of thousands of fatalities per year. All the while, cannabis has only recently become legalized, after decades of unfounded fears over the harm it could cause. Clearly, our laws do not reflect our most rational thinking. We do and should restrict certain freedoms for the greater good, and yet we base what is good and what is harmful on personal biases and assumptions, rather than on hard data. And of course, the profit motive is a big influence, yet no one has figured out how to make money off public nudity, only private nudity in the form of strip clubs and pornography.

Laws will change. But not before we change minds. As more and more people become exposed to the innocence of the human body, penis and all, we will be more inclined to let go of our irrational taboos, just as we let go of taboos against premarital sex, interracial coupling, and gay marriage. It will be a slow moving shift in the fabric of social consciousness, a fabric of a million-million threads, each a blog post (like this one), or a natural selfie, or just one friend or family coming out to another and saying, “Hey, it’s 2040, who cares?” Let the penis out. Be free.

 

Want more articles like this? Check out my Naturism Page!

 

Ages of Aenya: Thelana and the Serpent’s Eye

SerpentsEye

Thelana explores an ancient Septheran ruin

Darkness stretched above them, impenetrable, and there was no way to tell how far they had fallen, but given the relative cool of the room, she knew they were deep beneath the surface. Only a faint red glow gave any sense of shape or dimension to their surroundings. She focused on the light, moving carefully forward. An iron torch was fitted to the wall. Whatever fuel there had been was long turned to ash, so she made a knot from her sleeve and stuffed it inside and, with a flint stone from her pack, the torch blazed anew.

“By the gods!”

Gold glittered across her field of vision. Despite the dust and decay and webs thick as ropes, the firelight reflected on the various hard surfaces with a dazzling brilliance. So many wonders enamored her senses that she did not know where to turn, and whenever she reached for one thing, some greater wonder pulled her gaze away. Obol and drachmae coins littered the shelves amid bejeweled amphoras and silver goblets. Coffers brimmed with rubies and sapphires, jade and lapis lazuli. Urns of ivory and obsidian abounded, their lids fashioned into trike and dragon heads and other beasts unfamiliar to her. Even the tables and chairs were gilded. A whole chariot stood in a dark corner, preserved in gold leaf.

She scooped up handfuls of jewels, let them spill like pebbles between her fingers, only to scoop them up and drop them again. She loved how they captured the light, the sound they made, like tinkling raindrops, even the cold, hard feel of them. For the first time in her life, she knew what it meant to possess beyond what was necessary, to be truly, decadently wealthy. She was ankle-deep in gold, in ornaments most people could never hope to own. A dazzling dragonfly necklace adorned her neck, its gold wings spread across her collarbone. A gold serpent with ruby eyes coiled about her forearm, from her wrist all the way up to her elbow, and her mind flooded with possibilitiesIt was enough to never go hungry, to have servants, if she so wished! No one would dare imprison her, or look down upon her, or mistake her for a harlot. Princess Thelana, they might call her. No, Empress Thelana! She was giddy as she pictured herself in her own palace, surrounded by family and a cornucopia of food . . . but the reality of her current situation was not far behind. How would she transport such wealth? And could she even find her way back from the Dead Zones? She quickly chased from her mind the memory of trekking back across that sun-scorched wasteland. There had to be another way.   

Next she moved to examine the chariot. An assortment of shields, swords and bows leaned up against the wheel, and it reminded her that she was not a princess, but a hunter and a wanderer, that she was free of the trappings and hypocrisies of civilization. The longbow was of dull gold, shaped like two serpents joined at the tail. The craftsmanship was exquisite, perhaps superior to her jade bow, though the pull string was missing. Slinging the serpent bow over her shoulder, she was overcome by a new sense of prosperity, and she could not recall when last she was happy. It was so long and forgotten a feeling that it gave her pause. The gods were cruel, she knew, and no fortune came without sacrifice.

Taking greater precaution, she continued to explore the room, finding things that spoke of ancient evil. With meticulous detail, the legs of the furniture were carved to resemble men, but in a kind of deformed mockery of the human body. Bent at the task of supporting seats and tabletops, the slave’s limbs were spidery, and their ribs jutted out over stomachs that held the appearance of hollowed out pits. Anguish was cut into every ivory face. Bringing the torch to the wall, the fire revealed a mural, a golden city of obelisks, statues, and sphinxes. Massive saurians were driven along paved streets, but never by humans. Men and women were depicted laboring under the whip, burdened under slabs of rock, leashed to wagons. Every human figure was emaciated, deformed, wincing. Shuddering with disgust and horror, she reconsidered adorning herself in the accouterments of that evil race. She let the coiled snake bracelet slip to the ground and cast away the dragonfly necklace, not even bothering to unhook it from its chain.

But just a handful could buy back her family’s freedom, if she should find them, or Borz’s, at the very least.

The torchlight indicated a passageway, but she could not leave the room without securing some of the treasure, enough to never want from hunger, for herself and for her brothers and sisters. Coins and jewels filled her sack and she stuffed the gourd with gems until the water began to leak out. A few rubies, the size of grapes, would not fit through the opening and she considered swallowing them. It pained her to let them go, imagining what they could buy, perhaps a plot of land with good soil, but her sack was heavy with jewels already and that, she decided, would have to be enough.

Translucent webs impeded the passageway like silk curtains, thick and white and sticky about the edges. Air flowed from beyond, causing the loose threads to flutter and the veil to swell and retract as if the passage was alive and breathing. Touched by the flame, the webbing disintegrated in a flash of orange and red, illuminating her way. She moved forward, the glow of her torch chasing shadows on the wall, revealing splashes of color from the continuing mural. She had no knowledge of archaeology, but knew enough to understand that the images told a story.

In simple lines etched into the limestone, there were a number of figures, the first of which were neither human nor snake man, or any other race she knew, and yet their distinct shapes were familiar. They were wide-bodied creatures, with rounded, dome-like heads and enormous hands. Ultimately, she recognized them, and shivered.

Golems.

Like the boulders littering Ilmarinen, like the faceless statues in the ruins in the woods, the resemblance was unmistakable. But who or what were they? By the pictographs on the wall, she could see that snake men and humans, even the people with fish-heads that could only be merquid, knelt beneath the golem-like race, perhaps as subjects. Her curiosity piqued, she followed the story with her fingertips, commanding Grimosse to bring the torch closer to the wall. In the following panel, the golem and snake race stood alone under a strange moon, surrounded by exotic, leafy plants. But their moon, or perhaps it was their sun—it was difficult to tell as it was nothing more than a simple circle—expanded, filling the sky, and the plants of their world were no more, and the golem race vanished also, or so she figured, since they were never shown again. There was a cobra-headed king then, who directed his subjects to build galleys without sails or oars, and in his hand was a scepter, its red jewel radiating lines like the sun. The galleys were set to sail without water, amid the stars, and many things happened after involving ellipses she could only guess at, but there was no doubting the basics of the history. The king reemerged from his galley and the three simple shapes representing mankind were shown to be kneeling, just as the other races had knelt before the golems.

They came from another world to enslave us. But this is ancient history. The snake men are no more.

Where the mural ended, there was a wall, engraved with stars of rubies and sapphires. A reddish glow radiated from behind it in vertical, parallel ridges. She could feel the sizzle of power against her probing fingers. Scrubbing the surface, the reddish light formed into the shape of a door. She called to Grimosse, who had to crouch to advance, and with a gesture from her he brought his door-making hammer to the wall.

Thoom!

Her ears quaked at the sound, but the wall did not surrender access. As rubble rained down on them, she squatted under his kneecap, fearing that the centuries-old architecture might fail atop them.

On the third attempt, a cloud of glittering vapors swallowed the hallway. She rushed blindly through the opening, under falling rubble, coughing, rubbing the haze from her eyes. A cavernous chamber spread before her. It reminded her of a mausoleum, dank with the musky odor of things long dead. The walls and ceiling, if any existed, vanished in the gloom. Moss and lichen covered every surface. Weeds split the floor, bulging under paving stones, and thorny vines came down from the shadows to weave across the floor.

Further on, a crimson sphere beckoned from a dais. For how long it shed its light, like a beacon summoning a ship to shore, she could scarcely imagine, though she knew no eyes had lain upon the chamber for untold ages. She moved toward the glow as long-tailed creatures with flipper-like appendages slithered across her path, mutations of a forgotten history, things like serpents but not.

As she approached the pedestal, Thelana could see that wherever the light of the sphere touched, the room was fractured, like a shattered mirror. Each fragment seemed to exist separately from the others adjacent to it, in its own light, in differing states of decay. One piece of the room was dimly lit, gray and lifeless, while another was green and vivid and bright. How was such architecture possible? She moved into the lighted area, fascinated by how sharply it divided from the rest of the room, and as she stood over it she was startled by the sudden warmth washing over her, and by the surprising echo of birdsong. Stepping backward into silence, she passed her arm through the space again, feeling the soft sudden rays of sunshine. When pulling away, the dank atmosphere gripped her arm and the skin prickled with gooseflesh. With great difficulty, she accepted what she was seeing was no clever trick of masonry, that somehow, beyond compression, where the sun appeared to touch her was an actual place, existing within the room but only occupying a part of it.

Many of the fragments were similar in size, while most varied greatly in proportion, either large enough for her to stand in or no bigger than the width of her finger. The break lines converged to a single point, a shatter point upon the pedestal, the red glow. It was the fire from within a gem fixed to the mouth of a scepter. It was the Serpent’s Eye.

The decrepit steps chipped under her weight as she climbed the dais. She did not know the reason, but her heart quaked as she neared the source. Something about the gem unnerved her, and yet its strangeness possessed her with a yearning to know its secrets.

As she reached the top, the jewel’s radiance enveloped her. A fine white ash, like powdered bone, covered the floor of the dais. The pedestal was a simple granite slab tinted red by the Eye’s glow, but as she moved closer, its timeworn features became defined, revealing a great sarcophagus in the semblance of a hooded snake man, the scepter protruding from its stone claws. There she froze, marveling at it, losing any hesitation she might have had for stealing it. The gem was the size of her fist, its thousand glassy facets multiplying her reflection in a kaleidoscope of reddish hues.

She could buy the entire world with this stone. No wonder Nesper was after it. No wonder he would have killed them for it.

As she reached for the scepter, her arm bent like a broken stick and her fingers became elongated. She moved her hand through many odd, distorted angles, the air around the gem bending the light like still water—at least, still water was the only way her mind could process it. Shrugging off her sense of unease, she closed her hand about the scepter and it came loose without resistance. The Serpent’s Eye was lighter than she expected, and turning it in her hand, she noticed that the Eye itself was not set between the serpent’s fangs, as she had thought, but held by some invisible thread. She’d never seen any such thing, but it reminded her, for reasons she did not fully comprehend, of Emmaxis, of something otherworldly.

She returned from the dais briskly, skipping down the steps like a child late to supper, in her heart a mix of guilt and relief. Thelana could not remember being so fortunate. Such a treasure would be easy to carry and was no doubt equal to all the valuables in the other room combined. And then, as she lifted her eyes to look for Grimosse, her heart lost its rhythm, forgetting for a moment to beat.

Another person was in the room with her and it was clearly not Grimosse. It could not be a native, she told herself—there was not a trace of life in Shess. Was it a wanderer like herself? No—that was impossible, for who else could survive the journey here and arrive at the same exact moment? Yet there it was, standing between the dais and the door she’d come through, an apparition in sun-tortured and eroded garments, with deep folds suggesting a woman or a young boy, a body emaciated by hunger like her own.

“Wh-Who are you?” Thelana asked, despite the sinking suspicion that she knew the answer already.

The other girl stared, just as wide-eyed, just as frightened. “Who am I? I am Thelana.”

“No, you can’t be Thelana,” Thelana said, feeling her lips quivering as she spoke the words. “I am.”

 

Uh-oh. Who is the real Thelana? Or could they both be real? Uncover the mystery of the Serpent’s Eye in Ages of Aenya