Ages of Aenya: Thelana at the Door

ThelanainNorthendell

Thelana defends Emma’s home from King Frizzbeard’s men. 

Careful not to bend the floorboards lest she wake him, Thelana paced the short passages of Emma’s home, feeling a prisoner.

Long ago, when Baba stopped eating and Nicola was growing pale and sickly, she might walk the whole of Ilmarinen, its lush beauty never failing to ease her worries. As long as she continued moving, troubling thoughts failed to follow. But in the tower, she could go nowhere, nor did she dare wander the avenues of a place that was, for her, strange and foreboding. Thelana used to think that people in cities, wealthy enough for proper homes, lived without cares. With bazaars full of meats and vegetables, running water from aqueducts, and walls to keep out predators and cutthroats, what could trouble them? Now she was finding Emma’s life less enviable. In Ilmarinen, she’d known freedoms no Delian could dream of. On her twelfth year, she and Britannia went scouting, a cycle’s journey from home. They found footpaths over the hills of Ukko, crossed valleys into unnamed lands, swam the tributaries of the Potamis to wherever the water flowed. That was freedom, that was—

BOCK! BOCK! BOCK!

Thelana froze on one foot, forgetting that she was in a house and that no creature could see her. The noise came again, echoing more loudly, rattling the decrepit beams of the ceiling. She waited for it to go away, but the knocking persisted, sounding angrier by the moment. Against her better judgment, she hurried down the stairs, keeping some space between herself and the door.

“Um  . . . Who goes there?” she mustered, unaccustomed to answering doors, or to greeting strangers in a city.

“Open up!” a man demanded.

Thelana could not imagine who it could be, but the voice did not sound friendly. She felt her breathing quicken and her muscles grow tense, and her palms perspiring for want of a weapon. Pressing an ear to the door, she heard the muffled sounds of boots in snow from at least a dozen men.

“State your business,” she called out.

“Open the door in the name of the king, or we’ll force our way in!”

“Alright,” she said, “give me a moment.”

Thelana considered her choices. She could remove the beam barricading the door and let the angry men in, or go downstairs to warn Emma and Mathias. Or she could go upstairs, retrieve her bow, and wake Xandr. A warm glow emanated from the lower level, so she was certain her Delian hosts were continuing their study, and if they were coming upon some bit of wisdom to increase Xandr’s chances of survival, she was not about to interrupt them. As the door continued to shudder, she bolted up to the bower, remembering she did not need to wake Xandr. All she needed was Grimosse.

“Don’t let them through,” she told the guardian as she seated herself midway up the stairwell, stringing her bow.

“Grimm not,” he said oafishly, hoisting his massive hammer over his shoulder.

The knocking was followed by numerous demands, all of which related to the opening of the door. Thelana gave no refusal, only half-hearted assertions that she would, given time, yield to their wishes.

“You’ve been warned,” she heard a voice say, and then another remarking, “Bring the ax.”

The door quaked from a more powerful blow, the tip of the ax having yet to break through, but the wood swelling from where it was struck on the other side. Thelana remained calm, fixing her aim where the door would splinter.

After a successive series of blows, a piece of planking fell to the floor, and a man’s helmeted face poked through the opening. It was all Thelana needed to send him reeling. On the other side of the tower, panic was setting in, as the victim of her aim started to scream, “Take it out! Take it out!”

“No, Thelana!” It was Xandr, sounding fatherly and disappointed. “You may have killed him!”

“I thought that was the idea  . . .”

“Not here,” he admonished. “We can’t fight the whole city—!”

But there was no time for discussion. The panic beyond the door turned into a frenzy. More axes were coming through. Just then, Emma emerged from below, giving a short yelp and starting back at the sight of the splintered door.

“Go back down!” Xandr commanded her.

She stared at him, her eyes wild and bright. “What have you—?”

“No arguing!” he cried. “Let us handle this!”

Large gaps were beginning to appear now. The axmen retreated to make way for a multitude of hands. They were searching for the beam blocking the doorway. Emma stood petrified, fascinated by the intrusion into her home, but Xandr was quick to escort her away. Thelana, all the while, reached the entryway in two quick strides, snapping a soldier’s mailed wrist with her bare foot, removing another’s finger with her teeth.

“Some kind of . . . monster!” she heard someone say.

But the barricade would not hold. Openings were being made large enough for a man to crawl through. If they were so intent to enter, she figured, she would oblige them. As one man-at-arms came crashing in, chips of wood flying every which way, she pulled him to his knees, where Grimosse’s hammer rang against the back of his armor. A second intruder came at her belly with a short sword, but she joined her knee with his groin, forcing him back into the wall, twisting the helmet from his head to pummel him with it. A host of men-at-arms gathered up behind her, spying her with their blades, but Grimosse sent them flying, smashing the armor from their bodies, hurling one against the stair, another three back through the doorway.

Having beaten her assailant into unconsciousness, Thelana turned her attention to the jagged pieces of what had been the tower’s entrance. Outside, a dozen or more men-at-arms were gathering in the bailey. Snatching up a felled sword, she buried her ankles in snow to meet the invaders head-on, but before she could strike, Xandr’s palm fell hard on her shoulder, forcing her away.

“Get Emma!”

Thelana’s heart was a monster in her ribcage. Her veins were like molten steel, her breath like fire in the frozen air. She was more alive now than when bonding to his flesh, and she wanted to disobey him, to meet the Dark God with all her fervor. But his scowl overpowered even her resolve, and she shrank behind the doorway, choking down her bloodlust.

Reaching the base of the lower stairwell, she could hear Mathias’ frantic voice, “They’ve found me! Found me at last!”

“Emma!” Thelana called out. “Xandr says it’s time to go!”

But the Delian was unable to turn from her adoptive-father. He looked more ghoulish than ever, his face loose against his skull like a mask of skin, his bloodshot eyes jolting frightfully.

“Come with us,” she pleaded. “It’ll be alright.”

He put a hand through her robes, touched her belly as if she were with child. “Is it safe?” His voice wavered with uncertainty. “Do you think they’ll find it?”

“They won’t,” she assured him. “They know me. I always wear my robes this way.”

Something in the way Mathias fussed over the book was unnerving, as if he were giving his daughter a parting gift. It turned Thelana’s thoughts to her own secret, hidden in the hilt of her bow-sword—the ilm her father had given her before leaving Ilmarinen.

“Remember not to stand too straight,” he said, “or they’ll question the bulge, and you know what they do with books and to people with too much knowledge . . .”

Thelana did not know what Xandr was doing. Now that her blood was cooling, she was able to focus, to consider possible actions. Was he planning an escape? Or was he going to surrender? Either way, time was their enemy. “Hurry!” she cried.

Mathias sent her a frustrated glance, and returned Emma’s gaze. “If you value my words, despite all I’ve said and done, I beg you this small kindness that you listen to me.”

She nodded, looking doubtful, afraid.

“I’ve been a fool, Emma—an utter fool! I sought an escape from death, but before the Taker came for me, I buried myself in this  . . . this damnable tomb! I brought myself to the grave by not living.”

“This is not the time for sentiments,” Emma said to him. “The men-at-arms, outside—!”

“Permit me to finish, I beg you,” he said. “The day your father was killed, he tried to share a gift with me, what we had both sought for so long, immortality—you, perpetuate his being.” His voice collapsed to muttering. “Dak’s life continues through you. And I was too much the fool to realize it.

“I’ve never been a father to you, Emma . . . and I know that I am undeserving of it, but—”

“It doesn’t matter,” she murmured, blinking the tears from her lashes. “You’re not so old. We still have days ahead of us.”

For an instant, beneath his tired façade, Thelana saw in him a look of yearning. But like a smothered candle flame, the expression went out, and Mathias gestured for Emma to depart. She started for the doorway, but hesitated, turning to the spot behind his desk from which he made no motion. Her dark, raven-shaped eyes glittered in the chamber’s many lights, questioning him.

“Give me a moment,” he said uneasily, lifting the kerosene lamp from the wall, “to collect my belongings.”

She offered a puzzled expression, but he rushed her out by the arm, where she joined Thelana at the bottom of the stair. And then the door slammed shut with an echo of finality.

“Mathias!” Emma checked the doorknob, yet it was as she feared, locked from within. “What are you doing?”

“They cannot find these books,” he sounded from the room. “And they can’t find me  . . .” With that, Thelana could hear the ting of splintered glass and a rush of air, followed by a flash of gold about the seams of the door.

“By the gods!” she screamed. “Father, open this door at once!”

Thelana watched Emma’s porcelain hands grow pink about the brass knob. Her raven colored hair tumbled about her face and neck as she struggled with the barrier, forcing her weight upon it. The handle twisted and groaned in her delicate fingers, but the door refused to yield. Her screaming mixed with sobs. For Thelana, the scene of a daughter and a father separated by a door was all too familiar, and when she looked at Emma again, weeping miserably, childishly, the Ilmarin was unable to harden her heart to it. A deep sorrow, whether for Emma or for herself, drained away her rage, her strength.

“There’s still time,” Emma repeated, in a kind of frantic mantra, pounding the door with her fists, pounding until collapsing against it. “Father, there’s still time.” She continued until her voice gave out and smoke, black as the ink from Mathias’ inkwell, swirled about the doorframe. The scholar had immolated himself without uttering a sound.

Emma stood mechanically, her face a mess of hair and grief. She brushed at a tear and tried the handle again, burning her fingers. “Bring Grimosse,” she said.

Thelana knew there was nothing to be done. “He’s gone.”

“No,” said Emma. “Bring Grimosse.”

“We’ll go together,” she answered, tugging at her robes.

As the two women made for the upper level, they could see the dull copper of men-at-arms. The intruders scurried across every available surface, bustling up and down stairs, a number of them, for reasons unapparent, clutching Emma’s story books, tracking dirt and snow over loose pages of The Epic of Thangar and Sint.  

Thelana’s fist tightened against the jade hilt of her sword. They were to blame for Mathias’ death, for the loss of Emma’s only family. She felt a surge of hot blood once more, a need to kill everyone in the room, but, as if sensing her desire, Emma reached out. Her eyes turned dreamily between her dark lashes as she took Thelana by the hand into the cold night.

Xandr and Grimosse stood beyond the threshold with their wrists in knots. A pair of men-at-arms were heaving and swearing over the guardian’s hammer. Emmaxis lay half-buried, fading against the pale snow, no one daring to touch it. Across the street, lights started to burn, heads poking from neighboring windows curious as to the goings-on. Knights were arriving from every avenue. Thelana’s heart skipped. Unconsciously, her sword slid from her fingertips, ringing against the ice rimmed cobblestone.

She did not bother to see what strange hands were groping her backside. The ropes were coarse, cutting into her skin as they tightened, pinning her arms against her buttocks. Emboldened by her submissive state, a second soldier—a knight, she figured, by the finely embroidered look of his armor—approached from the front. His eyeballs rolled over her body. The other men-at-arms were no less observant, staring and snickering, sharing in the unexpected pleasure. In the heat of battle, Thelana had completely forgotten the taboos of civilization, and now she found herself wishing against all her nature for something—anything—to hide her shame. Noticing her sword, half-split into a bow, the knight’s expression turned suddenly to outrage, remembering the men that were wounded, possibly killed, by her hand.

“You bitch!”

She clenched to receive his mailed fist, stomaching the blow without complaint, staggering while keeping to her feet. As he looked on in disbelief, she pounced, crushing his nose between her teeth. After some thrashing and howling, he tore away, clutching his face to staunch the flow of blood. Now the eyes were on him. He was humiliated, her shame overshadowed by his. Enraged, he threw a hand over the pommel at his hip.

“Do that and I’ll reconsider!” Xandr warned. The Ilmarin looked vulnerable with his hands roped behind his back, his bare breast taking on a bluish hue in the cold night air, the cobblestones glazed with ice and snow looking hard beneath his bare feet. But his voice and the certainty in his eyes gave the knight pause.

“Consider what?”

“My stance on killing you,” he replied. “See, I did not surrender to spare our lives, but to spare yours. Lay a hand on her again, and you die—the whole lot of you.”

“You against all of us?” the knight replied. “I’d like to see you try.”

“Grimosse,” Xandr intoned, “show him.”

The guardian growled, snapping the ropes with a twitch of his muscled arms. A number of soldiers cowered back. Others pressed forward, training their lances against the monster’s throbbing torso.

“Hold off, Grimm.” A delicate white hand eased the golem into submission. It was Emma. Thelana and Xandr had made such a show that the young girl was able to pass among them unnoticed. She proceeded to search the faces of the Delians for any she might recognize. Two of the younger men shuffled away fearfully.

“Who did this!” she cried. “Who’s responsible here?”

A white destrier cut through the gathering, clopping softly before her. The rider’s greaves and the pattern on his breastplate were familiar. But she did not seem to recognize the closed helm with the single spike—long as her forearm—extending from the forehead.

“I’m in charge,” he said, his voice echoing weirdly from his faceplate. “And it would appear, considering my wounded men, that we should have listened to the king and had you executed.”

“This is my home,” she cried. “We’ve done nothing to warrant this intrusion. You know me, Duncan! We’re not witches!”

He brandished the long sword fused to his copper glove, to the plates of his arm and shoulder. “My wife cannot bear to look upon me. My children flee from my face. The man they once knew as Duncan Greyoak is no more. Henceforth, you may call me, Swordarm.”

As the men-at-arms led them away, Thelana turned back to the tower, watching the smoke rising through Emma’s bower window as blackened bits of philosophy rained on the city.

 

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Ages of Aenya: Emma confronts her father

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Emma and Grimosse, courtesy of Heather Zanitsch

 

After rattling the hinges and shaking the snow from the lintel, a small man emerged from a dark antechamber, looking as if he’d just arisen from bed. He had ash-white whiskers and a pouf of hair all out of place and he was wrapped snuggly in a gray blanket. At first, he looked annoyed and aloof, but as his deep-set eyes touched upon the golem’s snout, the man made as if to faint.

“He is the man who has hurt me!” Emma cried, and Grimosse grabbed the man by the shoulders, violently shaking him from his semi-conscious state. The golem then tossed him through the open doorway.

“Emma!” the old man cried feebly, his body crumpled against the opposite wall, “What are you doing—!”

She felt no pity. The power she now wielded roused something deep within her, something monstrous, tempting her to command the golem to kill.

“No!” Xandr protested. “The gods know you have your reasons, but we need him alive.”

Watching Mathias be pummeled by the golem’s fists began to feel less appealing to her, and before Grimm could do further harm, she calmed herself and regained her reasoning. “Leave him,” she commanded, and turning to Xandr, added, “You’re right. If I were to do it, I’d be no better than him.”

The old man was slow to rise from the floor, and when he found the strength to do so, he cried out in agony. “You-You broke my back! Why have you done this to me, Emma?”

Xandr, Thelana and Emma followed the golem into the tower. The door swallowed the light with a resounding thump. In the dim glow of Mathias’ lantern, their faces flashed savagely. “How dare you ask me such a question?” she snapped. “As if you do not know! You deserve worse.”

“I  . . . !” he exclaimed, his mouth agape. “After all I’ve done for you? Fed you when you were hungry, clothed you when you were cold  . . . protected you from the evils of this world? This is how you honor your father, seeking vengeance upon me, bringing these people to murder me!”

“You locked me in a room for a year!” she spat. “You kept me a—a prisoner!”

“It was for your own safety. I never wished ill upon you! You simply have no idea the forces I contend with! Please believe me.”

“Oh, so now you show me courtesy,” she replied coolly. “Now you give explanations. You are a liar. You locked me up to punish me, no other reason  . . . to punish me for going into that accursed den of yours!” She glowered over him, but there was no trace of the cruel father she remembered. Where was the man who terrified her with his presence? A feeble old man, trembling at her wrath, had taken his place.

“The knowledge I have collected, if you could have comprehended it  . . .” he began. “Trust me when I say it would have destroyed you, brought destruction upon me and all I have worked so long to achieve.”

“Well,” she said, “the day has come for you to open your door. And you will tell me everything.”

Mathias turned from her, to each face in turn. “C-can they be trusted?”

“They are my companions,” Emma replied, “and have my confidence.”

Mathias hurried down to his study. Emma followed closely, having ten years and an adventure with the Ilmar to build her courage to brave those few steps, which she was surprised to find, were little more than half her height, short enough to jump down from. Rummaging in his pocket, Mathias’ ring of keys chimed in his hand. He poked nervously at the keyhole with the silver key, now dulled with age, until the sound of falling tumblers echoed through the tower.

The mass of books had grown considerably since Emma’s ninth year. So much so, it did not seem as if the six of them could find room to stand.

“Please,” Mathias murmured, “be careful. These books have been meticulously arranged.”

The Ilmar nodded politely, marveling at the pages towering over them, lining every wall, piling in every corner. The taxidermy halfman that had once frightened her was entirely lost in the mess. It was as if the room was entirely composed of paper.

Thelana squeezed through more easily than the others, remarking, “I never knew there could be so much to write about.”

His desk was as Emma remembered it—a clutter of candles, astrolabes, compasses, maps, quills, skulls, and other oddities. Holding fast to the edge of the tabletop, he hung up his lantern and descended gradually into his chair.

“So,” he said, breathing heavily, “what do you intend to do now?” The flickering candles cast an eerie pall upon him, revealing a man of ghastly complexion. The balls of his eyes hung so loosely, they looked to fall from his skull, the rims so bloodshot, it was as if he never knew a night of sleep. “Without proper study,” he began, “none of you shall comprehend a thing. I doubt your friends possess even the capacity to read. You are peons, utterly insignificant, going about the motions of your pitiful lives without any idea the enormity that is existence.”

Emma went to speak, but Xandr stepped forward, silencing her. “I am Xandr, Ilmarin, and Batal of Legend.”

“Ilmarin,” he intoned, sitting up in his chair. “I did not think your people still existed.”

“We are few,” Thelana remarked.

“And you say you are the Batal,” he asked. “The same Batal who fought on Sternbrow Hill?”

“I do not know of Sternbrow Hill,” Xandr replied, “but I know men of destiny. My great ancestor helped free Aenya from the rule of the Septhera. I was raised in the Mountains of Ukko, by the Order of Alashiya, to confront the awful fate that now, even as we speak, climbs the mountain that surrounds us.”

He leaned forward, his face split between skepticism and enthusiasm. “What you say is intriguing, but how do I know any of it is true?”

“I have this,” Xandr replied. As the cloth fell away from the sword, the room took on a silvery brilliance, its milky surface mirroring the cluster of candles.

Mathias sprang at the sight of it with a power he did not look to possess, his mouth agape, his fascinated visage contorting about the nodes of the silver skull. “This is neither bronze nor iron,” he remarked, his fingers moving anxiously across the metal. “It’s simply flawless, like a diamond. The element is too heavy for our sun to produce—it is dead matter, stardust, an artifact that could only have been forged by the Zo!”

“There is more,” Xandr said, reaching into his sack. “There is—”

“Not yet!” Emma searched the faces of the Ilmar. “I promised to help you, but I’ve waited too long for this.”

Mathias leaned over his desk. “No, Emma, can’t you see that this is more important—”

“The guardian obeys me!” she cried. “You will sit yourself down, and if you wish to know about the sword, you will first answer my questions.”

“Oh, by all the gods above,” he grumbled, the century-worn wood of his chair creaking as he settled into it. “I have dreaded this day.”

“You’ve dreaded my knowing the truth? Learning who I am?”

“No, Emma—”

“Enough! First, tell me why  . . . why do you persist in sitting here? Day and night? Night and day? What is it about this infernal room and these damnable books that so needs occupy your life, making you less than a stranger to me, a mere shadow?”

“All right.” He pushed his fists tiredly into his eye sockets, studying each face anew. “If you believe the answers will ease your burden to know, I will give them to you. But be forewarned, you may not find comfort in what you hear. The truth of things, you will discover, is often disturbing.”

“I don’t care,” she said adamantly. “I want the truth. I am prepared.”

“Very well, then,” he said. “But where to begin? I suppose, the very beginning is best.”


 

 

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Aenya Newsletter: Welcome to the Aenya-verse!

I sometimes feel like Eldin, the time-traveling historian, hopping between ages. The world of Aenya has been brewing in my skull for almost twenty years now. I remember advertising that the The Dark Age of Enya would soon be released in 2000! Sadly, these vast time periods tend to alienate fans, because after nearly two decades, I’ve managed to release just TWO books, the second being a rewrite of the first. My mind, however, exists in a constant state of creativity, from my blog articles to my art to an ever expanding encyclopedia of all things Aenya. But it’s all been frustrating, because work and family have constantly gotten in the way of my true passion: telling stories. But maybe the delays have been a blessing. Quite honestly, I do not think it possible for any writer to build a fully realized universe in one, two, or even five years. It may be that I needed twenty years to build Aenya, a world-building feat like we’ve seen only a few times in the past.

Twenty-twenty will be the year of the Aenya Big Bang, as I will be quitting my day job to work full time on my novels. Don’t worry, my business is self-sufficient, so I will still have a roof over my head even if I don’t become the next JK Rowling. That being said, I have no interest in treading where other writers have gone before. Even Game of Thrones hems too closely to The Lord of the Rings, with its medieval, Anglo-European setting. What fantasy needs now is storytelling as grand in scope as what Tolkien and Martin have put out, but in a different sub-genre. As much as I love elves, dwarves and dragons, they won’t be appearing anywhere on Aenya. You also won’t be seeing vampires, zombies (ice or otherwise), emo-rogues, or villainous, world-shattering wizards. Been there, done that, thanks. The books in the Aenya series belong to the sword and planet genre, with a mix of Homeric myth-making added in. Sword and planet, specifically, dates back to 1912, with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of MarsA revival gathered steam in the 60’s and 70’s, but most of those books were amateurish pulp, with little to offer but hack n’ slash violence and titillation for adolescent boys. Looking for meaning in something with a half-naked barbarian on the cover is often a lost cause, but this isn’t to say that the genre cannot be held to a higher literary standard.

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Shakespeare this is not.

But the Aenya-verse will be different in another way. Taking a page from Marvel, the books of Aenya will be interconnected without being direct sequels to one another. This will give me the freedom to focus on traditional storytelling, without having to force old characters into unwarranted situations, which can sometimes have poor results. Think of the negativity surrounding the Star Wars sequel trilogy, or the Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts spinoff. Sometimes, it’s better to leave well enough alone. Tolkien seems to have understood this, having been unwilling to bow to pressure from his publisher to write “more on hobbits”—giving us, instead, The Lord of the Rings, which was only tenuously connected to The Hobbit. Of course, if fans are clamoring for more Xandr and Thelana, I may be inclined to create something new, if a good idea presents itself. But there are just so many more aspects to Aenya’s history and geography that would make for great fiction. In the upcoming The Princess of Aenya, for example, a minor character from Ages of Aenya becomes a main character. In The Children of Aenya, characters from PoA will also make an appearance. This is somewhat like A Song of Ice and Fire, except here the story threads remain separate, rather than running concurrently.

 

The Reviews are In!

In the April edition of H&E Magazine, Tim Forcer gave Ages of Aenya a four out of five stars! While I would have preferred a solid five, I think I can live with four. You can check out the review below:

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It’s ironic how Tim points out the number of nude Thelana pics I have had commissioned, when his own magazine sports a beautiful nude “centerfold” very reminiscent of Playboy. Nudist or textile, we just need to accept that pretty young girls attract readers.

 

Announcing Tales from Aenya

I am officially announcing my jumping into the YouTube arena with Tales from Aenya. Now I do not expect a ton of traffic, knowing how YouTube’s search engine works. People look for popular subjects like Star Wars, Marvel, SJW or atheism, mostly to criticize those things, which is why the site has lately become a cesspool of negativity. In every other video someone is frothing at the mouth about how much such and such movie/game/TV show sucks, and why it sucks, and how they, in their wisdom, would “fix” the failures of said thing. Nobody has an opinion regarding Aenya, good or ill, so I am bound to get very few clicks. When YouTubers start spitting at their monitors over how awful my latest book is, I know I will have succeeded. Still, for my devoted fans and soon-to-be fans, I will be showcasing some original artwork, while reading excerpts from published works, and short pieces that expand the world of Aenya, like The Ballad of Titian and Midiana and The Nude Equestrian

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Thelana’s and the Halfman, from the AoA of Prologue

 

Coming Soon (Honest!): The Princess of Aenya

Waiting for me to release a new book is worse than waiting for Winds of Winter, but Princess is definitely on its way! I have been working closely with my editor, Ava, to hammer the story into shape, and we’re currently on the last two chapters. Also, the finalized cover (below), courtesy of my go-to artist, Alexey Lipatov, is done and ready to be sent to the publisher. Look for The Princess of Aenya on Amazon and www.nickalimonos.com by fourth quarter 2019!

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Ages of Aenya: Thelana Meets Horde

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

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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

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

Ages of Aenya: Xandr Battles the Snake Man

XandrVsPDA

Naked but unafraid, Xandr must prove mankind’s worthiness against the Septheran champion.

Sunlight reflected off the Septheran’s body, tinting him violet, but where the sun did not touch directly, his scales were as black and shiny as volcanic glass. Like his brother, the Pharaoh, the creature named Purple Death Adder possessed the cobra-like membrane connecting the top of his head to his shoulders. With his approach, his awfulness became more intimidating. He was much taller than any human, with sinewy arms that reached to his knees and talons that snatched at the air, and in each hand was a long dagger in the shape of a crescent moon. Tellhus charged with a lame leg and a desperate cry, his khopesh thrust at its gut, but the prince of serpents did not stir. Whether staring down his attacker or sleeping, the creature’s eyes showed no sign. But as the sun moved across his pointed face, his pinpoint eyes flickered from black to white and his head pivoted like a predator before a kill. In the instant of impact, the Adder became a torrent of motion, slashing at Tellhus’ sword arm. Blood gushed from the limb, cleanly cut from the elbow, but Tellhus simply stared where that part of him had been, the pain having yet to reach his senses. Retracting the scarlet blade, the Septheran crawled, lizard like, along the man’s body, biting deep into the shoulder. As the venom took hold, he became rigid, and even from a distance Xandr could see the discoloration—the subtle purple tint in the veins beneath the skin. Tellhus fell, shriveled to the bone, like a preserved corpse dead a dozen or more years.

A wretched sound circled the arena, filling the ears with dread, hisses and snare drums and human cheer. It wasn’t a battle they had been anticipating, but a slaughter. And they approved, Xandr realized with disgust. Even the human slaves accompanying their masters were too cowed, too complacent in their misery, to think otherwise.

As the spectators grew silent again, Purple Death Adder turned his attention to the three remaining humans. At this, Soog keeled over, his vomit pooling between his knees.

“Up!” Xandr commanded him. “Do not show them any weakness!”

“But we are weak!” Soog admitted. “Haven’t you figured that out yet? Tellhus is dead! Dead! And we’ll soon be with him!”

“We’ll all be dead someday,” Xandr replied softly, “but few men die with purpose.”

Few men die with purpose!” Eldin repeated excitedly. “It’s a popular saying of yours, you know.” Xandr gave him an annoyed look, but he went on. “Come to think of it, I must live through this day, either me or Soog, or who else will have recorded it? You don’t happen to be a bard or historian, Soog?”

“No . . .” Soog replied timidly, “but I could start.”

“You’re mistaken,” Xandr said to him. “I learned the saying from my mentor.”

“Precisely,” Eldin agreed, “but it was passed down from you, from the Batal, which means—by the gods!—you were meant to embody your ancestor!”

Ever so gradually, the Septheran prince was making his way toward them, to prolong the kill for the crowds, and to torment his victims with impending death. In his periphery, Xandr could see Eldin retreat behind him. “If you’re so certain about all this, why do you tremble?”

“I —um—am only human,” he admitted, “and my calculations may be off!”

“The two of you stay here,” Xandr said finally, taking the least beaten sword from the ground and the small ax from Soog’s bumbling fingers.

Compared to the weight of his two-hander, carrying the khopesh was like going into battle empty-handed. The sickle-like blade twirled in Xandr’s palm as he rummaged through his memory for the techniques his mentor taught him for small swords. It was too dull to chop, that much he knew, but the Septheran’s armor-like hide made that a moot point. Any sword could do the deed if one were to simply push. The ax was a distraction, so he tossed it, marking the divide between him and the prince.

Purple Death Adder’s crescent blades silvered in the noonday sun. His neck stretched, accordion like, making him a head taller. His eyes rolled over Xandr’s body, studying his build, his demeanor. Caution showed in the snake man’s coiled posture.

You do not fear me.

The voice was thick and venomous, rattling his brain, but Xandr resisted the instinct to step away from it. “No.”

Even while standing, the prince was all motion, every limb writhing, its head bobbing, its tail curling and snapping and recoiling. Why not? he asked simply.

“Because my loved ones have already gone to the Taker,” Xandr answered, “and you cannot harm them.”

Do you not value your own life?

“I do,” he said, digging his fingers into the khopesh’ rusty hilt. “But I value the lives of others more.”

That is folly, the snake man communicated telepathically, his head agitated from side to side. Compassion is for the weak! All the while, the chatter from the wall intensified, the masses having never witnessed such an exchange between a man and a Septheran.

“You cannot understand because you are coldblooded,” Xandr said, his heart quickening, watching for any sign of attack, though the snake man’s posture and constant motion was utterly alien, mesmerizing. “Your cruelty is your weakness. No species can thrive on the suffering of another. The day will come when humankind shall triumph over you.”

That day is not today!

Xandr’s head screamed, the voice in it shaking him to his knees, as the prince’s scales quivered, his mouth gaping wide enough to swallow a man whole, his fangs milky white, dripping with ichor. Anticipating the attack, Xandr bent at the ankle, but he was already too late, the moon blades crossing his throat, grazing the stubble of his chin. He had never seen anything, beast or man, move so swiftly. In retreating, Xandr made a slashing shield with the dull edge of his sword, but the tail came out of nowhere, cutting his brow like a whip. The snake man was less limited by tendons, moving more fluidly than any man could, attacking from the side as readily as from the front. Xandr was outmatched and he knew it. Without thinking, his hand went to his breast, clutching his heart as if it might jump out, but the familiar scar crossing his torso was not there, and he remembered that he was not himself. He was Batal, and somehow . . . somehow the Batal had managed to make history. If he were to die at the hands of this monster, before so many witnesses, what difference could he make?

I must not lose. I must move faster.

But the Septheran was everywhere at once. Silver clashed with dull iron, pelting him with rust. Attacks came so suddenly and in such succession that Xandr could not hope to use his khopesh but to defend, and he realized with some horror that he was fighting only to survive. The tail, though it could not kill him, flayed his skin to ribbons, cut slices from his body piece-by-piece. The mouth lunged, flashing fangs, but they came too quickly for Xandr to contemplate—only some primal terror distanced him from their venom.

The crescent moons crossed again, the black-purple maw snapping between flashes of silver. As the first blade whizzed past his nose, the rusted sickle caught against the second. But Xandr’s weapon was wearing thin, each deflected blow adding a notch to the blade.

As hopeless as things seemed to him, he knew that from the walls above, the spectators could see the defiance, courage, and strength of a human slave, a sight never before witnessed in that arena. To Xandr, their faces were stony abstracts, too distant to distinguish, yet he could see the turmoil on their brows, in the sunken ridges of their eyes. Despite their masters’ angry lashing tongues, one-by-one, from the lowest to the highest tier, slaves began to rise from their seats.

The onslaught was unrelenting. And the day was sweltering hot, sapping the fight from him. Blinking the sweat from his eyes, he did not see the blade until it was too late, until he felt it tear across his liver. He watched his blood speckle the orange rock, the curved edge turn red as if dipped in paint. The arena was spinning, Eldin and Soog and Tellhus, and shadowy faces far and wide dashed with hopelessness, all spinning. Without any sense of falling, he was on the ground—there was no pain, only cold and numbness.

Where is my sword?

It was gone. Knocked somewhere out of his hand. He tried to regain control of his feet but they would not obey. He’d done all he could do.

The roar of thousands hushed to a whisper, and Xandr wondered why Purple Death Adder had not yet killed him. His only desire, his only regret in that instant, was that he would not see Thelana again. It was a selfish impulse and he knew it.

Out of the orange haze, a female shape was walking toward him, her hair like the tributaries in the valleys of Ilmarinen, and at first it was Thelana, but somehow she was more, was Alashiya also, for he remembered that the Goddess was in him, and all things of Aenya, and her skin glowed gold like the sun, became the sun.

You are not alone. Xandr. Her voice was a song, a mother’s coo.

When Alashiya reached down to him, and her hand was clasped in his, he was no longer in a place of darkness. Xandr stood to face Purple Death Adder again, sword at his side. The Septheran took a step back. The human spectators began shouting with fervor. Looking around him, at every hopeful face, he understood what he had to do. The fight was not his to win—it was theirs, and the Batal would not fail them.

“You wish to cow them?” Xandr cried, waving his sword over the masses, “then show them what they most fear . . . Bite me! I welcome the purple death!”

The prince was quick to the bait, leaving his moon blades in the dust. You do not know for what you ask . . . it is not a good death. It will avail your species nothing!

“Enough!” Xandr screamed, dashing forward. “Show me!”

Purple Death Adder leapt, his pink glossy gums agape. But Xandr drew him in with a delayed counter, the tactic taught to him by his mentor, giving the attacker what he thought he wanted. Rather than bite throat and shoulder, as the Adder intended, Xandr offered up his forearm. The fang cut deep, through to the other side, and as Xandr tore himself free the venom started to fill, coursing through his veins like searing needles. His hand was a bloody pulp. His forearm dangled from the elbow in meaty tatters. But the prince of serpents staggered back, the elongated neck stretched to its breaking point. With frantic strokes, it clawed at its mouth, desperate to remove the sliver of iron from its throat. Xandr moved slowly, weakly, despite his urgency and the short time he had in which to live. With his one remaining hand, he retrieved the ax, bringing it down upon the serpent prince, in a wedge though its slender face and head. Purple Death Adder flailed backward without so much as a hiss, now groping blindly at the ax handle jutting from its face, and hit the ground writhing.

Cheers sounded above panicked hisses. He had defeated the Septheran champion at the cost of his own life, but would it be enough to inspire men’s hearts to revolution? The poison was setting in. Each heartbeat was a dagger twisting in his chest. But they would not be wasted. Raising the ax overhead, wet with blood of the fallen champion, Xandr turned toward the stepped walls, to man and snake man alike. “I am a man . . . and I have beaten you!” Even as he spoke, the venom continued to cripple him, his fingers growing icy, his legs giving way.

“Men of Aenya!” he gasped. “You lose no freedom . . . when you are free to fight!” Those were his last words before he dropped to his knees, toppling forward to join Tellhus.

It would have to do, he decided, confident that the name would live on to inspire hope, to become part of folksongs, to pass through history and be recalled by generations, in cities by the sea, and by the simple people of the Goddess, those untouched by civilization. One name.

Batal.

 

What happens next? Find out in Ages of Aenya!

Ages of Aenya: Thelana’s Perilous Leap

ThelanaVCaw2

Lightning strikes as Thelana leaps from her bird onto the beak of a giant caw!

 

They dived, Xandr and Thelana flailing and nearly falling from the bird’s sides. Ahead of them, the sky turned gray, heavy, and wet. A deep rumble rolled underfoot, popped and cracked in their ears—it was deafening. Hair Thelana did not know she possessed grew long and straight out from her body and then everything turned white. She was blind. Pellets of water were pounding her, beading across her bosom, rolling over her every limb. As her eyes refocused, she could make out the jagged blazing tendrils cutting through the haze. A second pair of wings sounded behind them. Its screech was still terrifying, despite the thunderclap that dulled her ears. Looking over her shoulder, the gray void was thick but empty. Her hairs pricked up again and she slammed her eyes shut against the light. A second bolt split the sky. She could see it through her eyelids, and when she looked again, the long purple form of the vulture hawk loomed above, vanishing and reemerging with every flash. Suddenly the caw was at the ib’s tail. Its vulture-like head was bigger than Thelana could have imagined, its beak snapping wildly at anything within reach. When it screeched, the sound came in waves so powerful she thought she could see them, shaking her so violently the noise remained like a poison in her ears.

“Can you hit it?” said a voice, the syllables blown by wind and rain, by the thunder and that awful screeching. “Can you hit it?” Xandr shouted again, “With your arrows?”

“I never miss,” she replied, snapping her sword apart. The presence of arrows, concealed within the blade’s shaft, surprised her as she remembered the battle atop Sargonus’ head, when she was left to fend off merquid with nothing but her sword. Had Ouranos been so thorough in regaining their arms? Had he expected a struggle? With no time to think, she slipped a strange-looking arrow between her fingers, avian in design, as Flick Flack banked in a sharp angle and the caw spun from view. Avia wrestled with the reins, but the bird was terrified beyond her control.

Distance, direction, and wind—every factor amounted to total chaos. The ib buffeted with frantic strokes, making her aim impossibly unsteady, but her target was huge. The arrow escaped into a cloud. Again the ib banked, and Xandr and Thelana were thrown sideways, struggling to maintain balance.

“It disappeared,” Thelana remarked, re-nocking her bow.

“Do you think it’s gone?” Xandr asked.

In answer, the caw’s great beak broke from the clouds, stealing feathers from the giant pigeon, snapping at Thelana’s foot. Now Avia lost all control, and predator and prey fell into a spiraling dive. The surface of Aenya emerged clumsily, rolling overhead. Everything turned sideways, upside down, and right again. Thelana let out another shot to no avail and it came closer, too close, the gold edge of her blade ricocheting off its beak as if hacking at a chunk of iron. At any moment, that beak would clamp down and their mount would be devoured, and then they’d be fodder for the caw. There was no recourse but to do something bold, desperate. Cold dread turned to fire in her veins, when she threw herself headlong at the caw, bridging the gap between the two birds, the mountains like crumpled bedding underfoot. All her weight was in her hands as she came down, her steel breaking through the shell, sinking to the hilt into the monster’s beak.

“Thelana!” Xandr cried. “Where is she?”

Wounded, the caw sailed backwards. Thelana’s feet slipped from its rounded beak, but she was still hanging on, clutching the hilt of her embedded sword.

“I’ll get her!” Ouranos said, twirling back around.

But the caw was already upon them. Its talons cut like a scythe across the bird man’s back and he fell away with a shriek. The second talon hooked through its prey and Thelana tumbled down against the ib. Xandr caught her by the ankle, but the violence between the tangled birds loosed even his powerful grip. Everything was spinning. There was no way to make sense of direction and Avia, their only guide, was nowhere to be seen. Thelana managed to bend into a C-shape before flopping earthbound, her braid a four-foot jumble of movement below her.

Hold me. Xandr.

Without a sound, Thelana slid away from him and into the ether.

 

What happens next? Will Thelana survive her fall? Find out in Ages of Aenya!

 

Ages of Aenya: Thelana Makes a Stand

ThelanaVMerquid

 
Off in the distance, a contingent of archers emerged from their hiding places. “Traitors! They’ve killed the mouth of god!” It was a rallying cry from nowhere, and others joined in the chorus. An arrow went flying at a high angle, descending through Gol’s neck, and the blood shedding ensued.

Merquid bodies, flaccid as dead fish, flew at them, with nothing but claws and jagged rows of teeth. Xandr, Thelana, Grimosse and Demacharon banded to form a defensive ring. The commander moved his gladius with deadly precision, finding vital organs beneath scales, dropping merquid with every stroke of his arm. Within the circle of devastation forged by Grimosse’s hammer, Thelana retreated, folding her bow into a blade, but as the hammer came crashing and the merquid fell into disarray, she emerged, sword in hand. Not a claw or stinger managed to graze her skin, and she relished in the knowledge that her agility protected her more than any armor ever could. She danced in loops, her sword an extension of her arm, and merquid’ heads rolled from the collarbone in flashes of gold. Still, she felt comforted by the fact that Xandr never strayed beyond reach of her, bludgeoning the incoming tide by the pommel and crossbeam of his sword, pushing them through the throng to an open space, where Emmaxis came around in his hands, cutting a path of dismemberment. But the merquid continued to press them, growing in number despite their losses.

“They’re terribly weak,” Thelana said, “like feeble old men.”

“Aye,” Demacharon replied, “but they’re many. Too many.”

The battle drew them inward, to where the idol had collapsed. With nowhere left to retreat, they were forced toward higher ground. Xandr and Demacharon clamored over the knuckles and broken fingers of Sargonus as hoplites fell and were devoured behind them. With nothing but the weight of her sword to encumber her, Thelana was first to reach the head of the fallen god. A cluster of webbed hands groped her ankles as she reached for the earlobe, but her sword was quicker, shortening the reach of their arms as she swung herself up and over the idol face to safety.

Gelatinous limbs flailed up, yanking men down from their perches. Merquid were slow to climb and defenseless as they ascended, so Thelana found the killing effortless, but disturbing. Destroying life, even in self-defense, detached her from the world, and made the Goddess feel remote. She would have preferred using her bow so as not to stare into those horrid bulbous eyes, but the compartment that held her arrows was empty, and there were no dead archers around for her to steal from. She alternated between cutting down merquid and reaching for survivors. Most were torn apart before making it to the top, but what of Xandr, she suddenly realized? Her heart throbbed as she dared to glance out across the chaos, where few of the Hedonians’ red and gold armor could be counted among the pale green of the merquid. But her dread was short-lived. They were back to back. She could feel him against her, his warm shoulder blades flexing as he fought.

“I rescued you from that pit only to let you die a few passings later,” he said, without turning to face her.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, finding sanctuary atop the statue’s nose, where she stood above the warring masses that moved in patterns demarcated by bloodshed. Cupping her mouth, she cried out, “We meet Alashiya with courage!”

The Sea continued to rush into the temple and the merquid, weary of battle, found respite at the base of the falls. But the ceiling above was eroded enough for the sky to peer through it, and there the few remaining defenders gathered, under the sunlight, where it pained the merquid to follow. Water tumbled and sloshed in the sun, and the roiling mist obscured sight of all, so that none could say whether the attackers were being repelled, or if the ragtag force of humans was in its death throes.

What happens next? Follow the action in Ages of Aenya!  

Ages of Aenya: Xandr Defends the Temple

Xandr vs. the Merquid

The temple collapses as Xandr battles schools of oncoming merquid! 

 

“Blasphemers!”

The High Priest’s voice boomed from his gaunt frame but none heeded it. There were no formations, no strategic commands being given. Only desperation. Despite the vastness of the chamber, there was little space for the defenders to maneuver, and the merquid pouring into it were overtaking them. Pikeman bled beside shield-bearing hoplite. Archers desecrated altars seeking positions of advantage even as those positions shrank. Scales and human flesh clashed violently. Swords flailed, broken spears were turned to bludgeoning instruments, screams of rage and despair mixed with equal fervor.

“Blasphemers!” the High Priest shouted to no avail, high upon the sacred pool, clutching the Ages of Aenya to his bosom. Behind him, the pinnacle of the obelisk laid in a pile of debris, which archers had taken as a stronghold. From the breach in the pyramid wall, water roared, a fountain of foam radiating from it, running to the alcoves of the eight churches, sloshing about the feet of impassive gods. Already, the statue of Zoë lay in ruin, a terrible omen in the Hedonian’s eyes, and the immense life-size wakefins once pulling Sargonus’ chariot had come crashing down, their toothy beaks now rubble, the gold chains once linked to their harnesses swaying from the god’s outstretched hand.

Aeonus and Demacharon fought before the sacred pool to defend priest and god. As merquid broke through the ranks of lesser men, the two of them turned swords with terrible agility, littering the floor with bodies, turning the white tiles of the temple black with blood.

With the strain of incoming water, worked stone and mortar came raining down, crushing man and merquid alike, and the triumphant arm of Sargonus gave way with a resounding crack. Arm and trident shattered in the watery tumult, despoiling the sacred waters with smoky ash, sending ripples through fin and ankle. Every eye turned upon the idol, hope verses despair, and the whole of Sargonus split, leaving the head to falter between the two halves of the god’s torso.

“What shall we do?” Aeonus cried as the clawing throng pressed him against the pool’s rim.

Demacharon’s gladius punctured the gills of a lunging foe, showering him in gore. “We fight,” he said somberly, booting those fixed to his blade to fell another. “We die.”

“Keep them from the High Priest!” Aeonus cried, as best he could to reaffirm their waning faith. “All can be rebuilt . . .”

But something strange was happening. Merquid shambled forward, ignoring their attackers, their great bulbous eyes locked as though in a trance. An inhuman drone sounded from their mouths, growing into a croaking like chant, and one by one they began to fall prostrate, webbed fingers reaching, trembling, before the timeworn tentacles of coral beneath the crumbling idol of man—toward Gulgola, the squid god.

Thelana and Xandr had worked their way into the midst of the chamber before Grimosse released his weapon, the loud thunderclap filling the domed space. A wave of gurgling voices radiated from the sound, from the carnage made by a monster with a hammer. Man and non-man alike suffered the blows. Shields failed and Hedonians toppled, one against another, in the cacophony of shattering bronze. Merquid were swept away or made permanent to the floor. As Thelana crouched beside the hammer-wielding monster, a dull twang echoed from her bow, the arrows issuing from the taught string efficiently pinning the flat faces of the merquid with fletching. Opposite her, Xandr with his two-handed sword cut a silver-streaked path through the scaly horde, sending high-flying arcs of blood in their wake, as the three moved steadily and violently toward the altar.

What happens next? Find out in Ages of Aenya

Ages of Aenya: Thelana on the Plains of Narth

thelana_at_the_battle_of_narth__5__by_ageofaenya-d90v2ly

On the Plains of Narth, Thelana watches as all of the men in her troupe are killed. Embittered by the horrors of war, she is left with nothing but a longing to return to nature, and to the innocence of home.

Under an orange sky choked by fumes, the din of battle died away over the Plains of Narth. Most of the bodies were human, but the little ones, with their bony frames and taut gray skin and cruel etched faces, were not. Vulture spiders roamed among them, their elongated legs picking among the carrion, carrying the bodies away in web cocoons. Further in the distance, the hills were moving—or things that looked like hills—bashing anything that stirred. Since the dead did not stir, they crossed over to the dying, occasionally crushing the skulls of allies as they went. Thelana knew she was the only one that remained—neither horg nor bogren nor corpse—a small figure flitting swiftly through the haze. It was difficult for her to run without broken arrowheads digging into her soles—they clustered like weeds—but she managed her way back, vaulting herself over the makeshift ramp of sludge and dead and supplies.

“Torgin is down,” she said calmly, pressing her back against the rampart beside him.

“Are you sure?” Dantes said uneasily. “Did you see the body?”

She wanted to tell him how she’d found him, how his brains were splattered against a horg’s iron, how his lazy eye was as still as any other, but she answered simply, “Yes. I’m sorry.”

Usually, Dantes would say something to stir the soul, or mutter some prayer to his gods. But this time, he cursed. Dantes loved Torgin as a brother. “What about the lines? Are they intact?” There was real desperation in his voice, unlike anything she had ever heard.

“I . . . didn’t find anyone out there, Captain. I believe they’re all—”

“Damn it to Skullgrin, Thelana!” he screamed.

Even after cycles of fighting, he had called her, ‘new girl’. ‘Come here, new girl,’ he would say, or, ‘What did you find out, new girl?’ She hated it at first, but gradually came to think of it as a sign of his affection for her. After all, much to the irritation of the others in her company, he made tactical decisions that, one way or the other, put her out of harm’s way, using her swift footing, for instance, for scouting out the enemy. Only recently, when their numbers began to dwindle and her bow came into play more frequently, did he begin calling her by name.

“It’s over, isn’t it?” she asked.

Dantes was never known to admit defeat. Most often, as in the case of recruiting his youngest and best archer, he would get his way. It was what Thelana loved about him. But now his pride, his refusal to retreat, had led his friends and comrades to their deaths. “It’s over for us,” he said quietly, “but we’ve done our duty. That is all the gods can ask of us. We’ve slowed their advance, that much is certain, and the city guard will be waiting.”

“But what will we do? Where we will go?” She was frightened of the answer even as she asked.

“We will stay,” he replied, without a trace of hesitation. “We will fight to the end.”

Having lost so many lives, to flee could only bring him shame. Men of honor could not live with shame, yet she pressed him. “But what good will it do? Let’s leave this place. Together. Begin a new life somewhere far away.”

“No,” he said, without argument, without explanation of any kind.

“But—”

“Am I still not your Captain?” he shouted. “Every second we delay those monsters, every second they spend fighting us, is another second we give to the people of Kratos.”

“I’m sorry,” she said softly, her hand moving close enough for him to feel it. “I was being selfish. But—but if we are to die,” she started, surprised by her nervousness even in the face of the Taker, “at least tell me what I mean to you.”

His gaze fell hard on her, as if suddenly realizing that a woman was fighting alongside him and an uncomfortable space started to form between them. “I don’t know what you’re trying to . . .”

She had always believed, or was it mere hope, that he would be expecting such a query. Is it too soon? How can it be? Unless he doesn’t know . . . unless he feels nothing.  “I thought you cared about me. You always sent me on those scouting missions, and in battle you kept me close to you—”

“Thelana,” he said, his face souring, “of course I care about you. You’re a great archer, a loyal ally—”

She cupped his hand with her own. His knuckles were hard, her palm scabrous—their scars fit together in places. “Dantes, that’s not what I meant.”

The words froze between them. She searched his face for any sign of affection amid the anguish for his men. He averted her gaze, focused on her as he would any soldier. But he understood the meaning in her questing eyes, saw the love he could not return. And suddenly she felt ashamed, wanting to take back even those simple words.

“Thelana, you’re a very young girl and I have, well . . . I have a wife waiting for me.”

“You’re joined?” Her heart tightened against the pain, but the revelation kept digging deeper like a bogren’s spear. “I’ve never seen her! You’ve never mentioned her!”

“And I have daughters as well. One of them is your age.”

She wanted to cry out, to weep, but amid so many dead and dying, love seemed like a foolish thing to weep for.

“Now you know why I can’t retreat,” he said. “My wife and children are in the city. I need to give them time. It is for the families of Kratos that we face the Taker.” As he finished speaking, a terrible groan echoed across the plain, making them rattle in their armor.

“It’s close,” he said.

She pulled herself over the heap of dirt and broken bodies. It was there at thirty paces, a grotesque heap of fat. Boils popped from its folds, sizzling on the ground. The blood of its victims gleamed from a gargantuan battle-ax. Its skull was cut open like a melon, revealing a brain and the cords stretching out from it. A little gray creature sat on its shoulders, massaging the brain into submission, manipulating the strings with its other hand to move the horg’s massive limbs like a marionette.

Thelana ducked back under. “It’s a smart one.”

“Can you take it down?”

“Do you have to ask?” Peering over the mound, she surveyed the broken landscape for unseen dangers, but there were none she could see. She slipped her longbow from her shoulder, nocked an arrow in it, and waited for the monster to turn her way. Horgs were nigh invincible, could take dozens of arrows in their leathery folds and keep coming. But they were also as stupid as herd animals. Without their bogren masters, they were easily trapped and killed. Her arrow went soaring just as the gray one’s eyes narrowed in her direction. The bogren shrieked and tumbled from its perch—the cords attached to the horg’s brain pulled tight and went slack. Without a creature to control it, the horg shambled toward her, bellowing in agony, swinging its enormous ax at invisible enemies.

“Dantes!” she cried. “It’s coming straight for us. Run!”

“No,” he said, hiding his dark brows beneath his helmet. “We must meet the enemy head on. There’s no other way.”

“We’ll be killed.”

“One less horg for the city guard to worry about!” he cried, less to her than to himself. With shield and sword high, he rushed at the monster, without strategy, without an ally with whom to organize an effectual assault.

No, Dantes, this isn’t like you . . . this isn’t like you at all . . .  

He ran into the arms of the Taker as he ran into the monster’s ax. Thelana shouted after him, but turned away at the final moment. Suddenly, all her years of daydreaming came to nothing. A thick lump welled up from the base of her being, up into her throat, choked her.

He was gone. The man she had loved.

No one stood alive on the Plains of Narth, no other human but her. The emptiness was overwhelming, but such emotions were a luxury afforded to mothers and wives and to those wealthy enough to purchase walls. The world stood vast and barren all around her, but the weight of its people still pressed her. Broken swords, clutched by inert fingers, spread like blades of grass. The horror of it—so remote from the simple world she was brought into—shattered something inside her and she ran screaming, clumsily in her boots, into the midst of the dead.

Unsatisfied by Dantes’ blood, the horg lumbered for another kill, braying like a bull. She tugged at her beloved’s shield until his body surrendered just as the ax came crashing against it, laying her flat. She fumbled for a sword—any sword—and sprang back to her feet. The ax came around again, splintering the wood from the boss and tearing it from her arms. With the shield in pieces and her shoulder aching from the impact, she stumbled over the fallen bodies of her regiment, knowing that soon the horg would cut her down and all her pain would be over. But a distant memory was teasing her—she had to keep moving. Against the overwhelming force of the horg’s ax, her leather bindings were inconsequential, a hindrance that weighed and constrained her motion. This was not the way that Ilmar fought. Dantes had given strict orders that she keep her clothes on. You’ll lose face, he’d said. You will not look a soldier and the men will think you’re available. But Dantes was gone and every eye that might have shamed her was closed forever. In their armor, she was a prisoner, her breeches shackles of shame from a world she scarcely understood. She rounded the monster, keeping safely from its whizzing ax, and piece by piece, the accouterments of the Kratan soldier dropped like empty shells, the horrors of war peeling away with her chain greaves and belt, her brassiere and boots. She tore at the stitching as if burned by it. Even the fine muslin tunic Dantes had given her, the only article of clothing she had loved, crumpled in the dirt.

Wearing nothing but a sword, she stood under the sky, the Goddess a river surging through her. She closed her eyes to the enveloping touch of the battlefield, the shift in the ground as the horg stomped in blind circles, the small hairs of her body prickling as the ax came around and around.

He was twice her height. Ten times her weight. One blow and she was pulp. But having lost everything, she faced him. The horg charged, and she met him first, clambering up his rolls of fat, crossing his arm like the bough of a tree. Before his dimwitted mind could work out where she’d gone to, she was riding his back, plunging her sword into his exposed brain. The horg gave a confused groan and toppled like a column as Thelana rolled from his shoulders.

 

Where does Thelana go next? Find out in Ages of Aenya