People of Aenya: Horde

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Horde by Filip Bazarewski

Ten thousand years before the reign of Radia Noora of Tyrnael, or 5 BGM (Before the Greater Moon), the sun of Aenya began its expanse into a red giant, having swallowed the Xexaz world of Reptos within its corona ages before. Recognizing the danger to their planet, the Zo scrambled for a plan of salvation, but were mired by political divisions. Anti-science factions did not accept the looming threat, believing it a conspiracy to gain political sentiment, whereas the scholarly community were split as to what actions could be taken, if any. Many surmised that the end of the world was inevitable, and any attempt to change course was a waste of the precious little time they had to spend with their loved ones. Evacuation was the only option. But a vocal minority considered the ethical aspect of letting a world and all of its life forms perish.

Led by the charismatic thinker, Kjus, they stressed that the planet could be saved by moving it. Years were spent organizing engineers and workers, all of whom were driven by the threat of certain doom. They labored to save not only themselves, but the lives of their children and children’s children, and every descendent they were ever to have, their species and their home. Vast networks of underground tunnels were built, and a great machine, the mass piston. The machine allowed the Zo to manipulate the surrounding higgs boson field, oscillating the mass at the core to alter the planet’s orbital trajectory. The plan was as crazy as it was ambitious, and few believed it could work.

All the while, the exit majority, led by chief science advisor, Kzell, focused efforts on the building of wormhole generators, fancifully dubbed fantastigates. The proposed plan was not without its share of problems, however, for the formation of wormholes was, at the time, theoretical. Of the major obstacles was energy. Like the mass piston, the wormhole generator used mass to create gravity, but creating enough to punch a hole in the fabric of space-time greatly exceeded what was required to move the planet. Another more pressing problem: even if a gate to another world could be opened, there was no way of knowing where or when the gate might lead. Mathematician and historian, Eldin, disappeared through one of these gates, and was later discovered to have become lost in time. Eventually, after a number of trials and errors, including one in which an entire island continent was sucked into a micro-black hole, the fantastigate project was abandoned for a simpler, more desperate plan. Days before Solos’ expansion, the leading Zo voted to transfer their consciousnesses—their thought algorithms and memories—into an invincible golem body. It was intended as a vessel to extend and preserve their lives, a biological organism which could thrive in any environment, including the depths of space. Kjus, who continued his work to move the planet, was offered to join them. But he refused, choosing death over what he regarded the loss of his humanity. A separate body was designed for each member of the council, one hundred and twenty in all, but too much effort had been wasted on wormholes.

The golem body had a number of advantages to a starship. It would be far smaller, at 12′ in height, and therefore quicker and easier to manufacture. Powered by a heart of nuclear decay, it would require no sustenance, no food or water to produce and store. The fusion of organic and metallic materials would prove impervious to cold, heat, and aging. A magnetic field was added to deflect solar radiation, and a neutronium alloy veneer (derived from neutron star matter) to shield from micro-meteorites. Once off-planet, the nigh indestructible entity could traverse the stars at nearly the speed of light, creating ionic thrust from its hands and feet. After unmeasured centuries searching the cosmos, the golem was to settle upon a hospitable world, where its collective mind could be dissociated into separate biological entities. This was the last desperate hope of the Zo. The greatest flaw in the design, however, was intentional, as the golem brain was made to maintain a sense of awareness. They wanted to feel “alive.”

As Solos exploded into its final phase, the golem launched into space, but Aenya was not destroyed. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Kjus and his devoted followers, the planet was moved into a safer orbit, becoming a moon of the gas giant, Infinity. Recognizing its error, the collective attempted a return home, but a violent solar flair from the newly formed star stripped the golem of its magnetic field, and damaged its propulsion system. Falling into an irregular orbit, the body gathered icy particles near the system’s outer rim, forming a comet like cocoon around it. After untold eons adrift, alone save for the one hundred and twenty voices in its head, the Zo lost their sense of individuality and went insane, calling itself Horde.

Ten thousand years pass before Horde returns home. Encased in ice, it crashes onto the surface like a fiery meteor, cratering the ground and obliterating the land about Kiathos. But it is a very different world from the one it abandoned, a primitive world with two moons and one sea, where science has become magic and the Zo are long forgotten.

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DMT and D&D

I’ve been sitting on this post for years. Part of me really didn’t want to write it. And as a non-drug user, I felt unqualified. But the story has been nagging at me, ever since a friend told me about his DMT experience.

Now, I don’t do drugs. Never have. I grew up in the 80’s, with the “Just Say No” campaign, and the message really hit home. Except I took it to the extreme. I avoid anything that might artificially affect my brain in any way. So I abstain from alcohol, and I mean, ZERO alcohol. Haven’t had a sip of Bud Lite in my life. Nothing. Zilch. (OK, maybe whatever’s in Nyquil). My brother spent most of my teenage life trying to convince me otherwise, that I’d never find friends who don’t drink, or end up with a wife who doesn’t drink. Well, jokes on him, because my closest friend doesn’t drink and neither do our wives! By extension, to think that I could ever be pressured into pot or crack cocaine was hilarious. I was beyond peer pressure. Then again, I never felt any real pressure to do drugs. Sure, a few people asked me, but I said “No thanks” and that was it. It got to the point where I often wondered how anyone could end up an addict. Weren’t they forced to watch the same anti-drug videos I did? Now I know better, that drug-use is more often a symptom of depression or trauma or anxiety. But it’s not like I didn’t have opportunities. Working in a restaurant, you’re pretty much surrounded by users. If you’re in your mid-thirties and scrubbing dishes for minimum wage, chances are you made some bad decisions in life, or you just really, really like washing dishes. But here’s the odd thing: a lot of people over the years, including some crack heads, assumed I was an addict. One time, after taking a break outside, an employee asked me, “How was it?” I hadn’t had a hit. But, I am slowly starting to realize, I may have been doing drugs all my life without knowing it.

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Truth be told, we can’t escape drugs no matter how hard we try. A “drug” is a general term for chemicals, and we’re pretty much made of chemicals. It’s in everything we eat and drink. If you enjoy chocolate, caffeine, or the high that comes from exercise and sex, you’re enjoying the drug-like endorphins produced in your brain. And this brings me to DMT. If you don’t know what that is, I suggest you read up on it. The stories are amazing. It’s a hallucinogenic, but far, far more powerful than LSD. One LSD user described his DMT experience as somewhat terrifying, and you would be too, if you’re action figures started talking to you and dancing on your desk. A close friend told me the same thing. To paraphrase, “You don’t realize you’re hallucinating. There’s zero difference between what you know is real and what you are experiencing. Sight, sound, smell … it’s all there, utterly convincing.” And it’s not just seeing some funny things bouncing into your living room. Far from it. When you take a DMT trip, you’re entering another universe. You meet sentient beings, commonly referred to as “machine elves,” and there’s a great sense of time dilation. So what takes only a few minutes in reality might feel like days or weeks by the DMT-clock. OK, Nick, you may be thinking, this guy was probably pulling your leg. So I did my homework, and everything I read confirmed my friend’s story. In his book, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion, neuroscientist Sam Harris posits that many religious experiences, including visions of life-after death, can be attributed to hallucinogens. The “light at the end of the tunnel,” is just a symptom. Now, this might not make much sense, considering how little the drug is known. Where did Abraham or Moses or Buddha get a hit of this stuff? But here’s the thing: DMT is naturally produced in the brain. The chemical has been associated with dreaming and imagination. When we die, DMT is released from your brain in a torrent, offering powerful, convincing manifestations of the after-life. Eben Alexander, neurosurgeon and author of Proof of Heaven, converted to Christianity after being pronounced brain-dead for “a week.” His description of Heaven sounds a lot like an episode of My Little Pony, with lots of colors, flowers and enormous butterflies. But, as Sam Harris points out, Eben’s experience closely mirrors those of DMT users.

I will admit, for a few days after hearing this story, I entertained the idea that maybe—just maybe—DMT acted as a gateway into another world. I truly wanted to believe. Who wouldn’t? Then again, the notion of other dimensions lurking beside our own can get pretty freaky. So I asked my buddy, “Is it real?” No, he didn’t think so. As a philosophy major, logic prevailed. Sadly, all evidence points to the fact that we only have one life to live. Unless you’re a fundamentalist, you know this is it. And it’s precisely because of this realization, I believe, people are drawn to imaginative endeavors. It’s our only escape from this mundane, everyday existence. Even if you’re the Dos Equis man, you’re going to want to step into someone else’s shoes, live someone else’s life. Why else do we spend so much time and money on movies, TV shows, books and video games? While there may not be an after-life, we can choose multiple lives within this one, and DMT, or some chemical like it, makes it all possible. After talking to my drug-venturing friend, we both came to the conclusion that the brain is far more powerful than either of us could imagine.

I am not a scientist, and even if I were, I think a lot more research needs to go into creativity and imagination and into how the firing of neurons activates those functions in our brains, but I know from experience how real the mind can make things seem. As a child, I managed to convince myself of some pretty impossible things. I could, at times, see and hear things I knew I’d just made up. It got me to worrying, for some years, whether I was on the verge of schizophrenia. My dreams have always been particularly vivid. I sometimes wake, feeling like I just watched a movie’s worth of content, enough to write a novel. Users of DMT report similar experiences, living lifetimes in the span of minutes, but the information quickly vanishes from memory, just as my dreams fade before I can get to pen and paper.

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This brings me back to books and the imagination. For much of my life, I have understood the technological drive to make things look and feel real. CGI effects, in movies and in video games, work to push reality away, to give the player the sense of really “being there.” I love what Lucas did with Star Wars, and what Jackson did with Lord of the Rings, and Skyrim just looks amazing on PS3. And still, we keep pushing the boundaries, desperate to throw more pixels on the screen to hide the fact that they are just pixels. By the end of this year, we will have affordable VR headsets to further the illusion. And yet, given the opportunity, I’d go with a tabletop game, like D&D, every time. Some people only see the pen and the paper. It never becomes real for them, and in their case, who’d want to sit around a table for eight straight hours rolling dice? But for me, D&D feels more real because my brain makes it real. The brain is, after all, a vastly more powerful computer system. The trick is learning how to activate it, how to bring it to its full potential. Am I suggesting taking a hit of DMT before a game? Hell no. That would be terrifying. But I do think we can learn to exercise that part of our brains—the part that makes the magic—through meditation, as Sam Harris suggests, or by simply turning off our screens and the endless everyday distractions tugging at our senses.

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Demogorgon

 

In the Netflix original, Stranger Things, a girl with psychic powers is put into a sensory deprivation tank to focus her abilities. I believe this illustrates something we can all do, to hone the untapped resources of our own minds. Interestingly enough, the show references D&D and a monster called Demogorgon. When I was twelve, I was pretty sure Demogorgon was lurking in my bedroom. That never happened to me playing Diablo or Resident Evil. That’s the power of imagination. Nothing can match it.  It’s why I play, why I read, and why I write.

 

 

 

The Aenya Bestiary

ILMAR (HUMANS): Though they are considered to be more animal than human, the Ilmar can trace their roots directly to the first protohuman. Hidden from civilization, they live a primitive existence, devoid of government, walled housing or clothing. They typically have dark skin, leathery soles, and exceedingly resilient skin. To learn more: ILMAR

SEPTHERA: This long extinct race ruled Aenya around 10,000—9000 BGM. For centuries, humans were herded by the Septhera like livestock, forced to do labor, fight for entertainment, and at times, were used as food. The Septhera vary in appearance and color, from black, green, red and purple to many hued. Stripes and diamond patterns along the arms, legs and tail are common among females. By 9800 BGM, the Septhera were overthrown by the emergent Zo. To learn more: SEPTHERA. Figure courtesy David Pasco.

MERQUID (singular or plural): This aquatic, communal species once dominated the planet, living in ocean-vast cities that have since become desert. What remains of their kind is now concentrated along the coasts. Though benign, they can become terrifying in defense of their offspring, with a set of retractable teeth, barbed claws and wide glossy eyes. To learn more: MERQUID. Figure courtesy David Pasco.

HALFMAN: A distant human relative, this beastly primate has limited use of language and tool making skills. It is most commonly seen in the wildwood west of Kratos.Shy in nature, the halfman can become a terrible predator when the need arises, counting both human and animal as its quarry. To learn more: HALFMAN. Figure courtesy David Pasco.

HORG (singular and plural): Few creatures on Aenya are as feared as the horg. Rarely seen beyond the dark hemisphere, the horg is found on the outskirts of the eastern kingdoms. Females of the species are turned into slaves by the more diminutive bogren. Adult males (known as bulls) act as living siege engines, carrying immense clubs and shields made of ice and wood pulp called pykrete. To learn more: HORG. Figure courtesy David Pasco.

BOGREN: Small and crafty, the bogren are thought to have evolved after the Great Cataclysm. Their human ancestors remained, or were forced into, the eastern hemisphere, finding sanctuary deep under the ground where the lava flows. To learn more: BOGREN. Figure courtesy David Pasco.

AVIAN: The avian or “bird man” is a human subspecies, which can best be described as a cross between a human and a bird. They are reclusive and fearful, tending to avoid contact with other intelligent races, but are also proud, believing themselves morally and intellectually superior. In appearance, the avian is as diverse in the hue of its plumage as the bird species of Aenya. They are also fond of ornamentation, and wear beak-like masks, which they use to conceal their hominid ancestry. To learn more: AVIAN.

THE AENYA BESTIARY: AVIAN

 

Avian

The avian or “bird man” is a human subspecies, and can best be described as a cross between a human and a bird.

HISTORY: The origin of the avian race is unique to Aenya in that their development from proto-human into a winged/feathered species is due largely, in part, to culture, in an example of ‘controlled evolution.’ Beginning at about 10,000 to 9,000 BGM (Before the Greater Moon), early hominids from the Nimbos valley fled from the invading Septhera, ascending into the mountains. Those slow to follow were enslaved or eaten by predators, the most terrifying of which was the caw, a bird with a 60′ wingspan. The dreaded caw became a focus of proto-avian myth and history. It was once worshipped as a deity, and animal sacrifices were commonly proffered to abate its hunger. All the while, the proto-avian subsisted on a diet of fowl, as the chain of Nimbos Mountains housed a multitude of feathered species. As time passed, dozens of breeds were domesticated, including falcons, carrier pigeons and owls. Most notable was the giant ib, a timid, dove-like creature with a 12′ wingspan. The ib was used for travel, hunting, and evading predators. Not soon after, tales of hunters braving the caw’s nest spread to every tribe. While the proto-avian never managed to tame the greatest of aerial predators, its eggs, feathers and skeleton became prized possessions, and to be adorned in its plumage became a mark of status. The skulls of unborn and newly hatched caw were worn by kings and priests as masks. After less than a century, between 9,000 and 8000 BGM, the proto-avian joined wax and feathers to produce simple winged gliders, which could be used to descend the mountain quickly. Consequently, the proto-avian came to see themselves as children of godlike, winged beings, that aeons ago were cast down to grovel in the earth. It was, therefore, avian destiny to return home to the clouds, and achieving flight became a cultural obsession. Each generation came closer to this realization, as traits conducive to flight were actively fostered. These traits included longer arms, shorter legs, stronger torsos, and a shallow, tapering bone structure. As bio-technologies advanced, the proto-avian grew more sophisticated in this endeavor, manipulating their species at the level of the chromosome, until their infants were born with feathers and wing-like membranes along the arms. By 2000 BGM, the once human species was successfully transformed into a new species: the avian.

PHYSICAL APPEARANCE: Avians are as diverse in appearance as the birds of Aenya. Their plumage may be as black as a crow’s wing or a rainbow of hues. Differences in coloration depend largely on diet, which is determined by territory.

Avians tend to be thinner and shorter than humans, a typical male weighing between 85—115 lbs, and standing at about 5′. A thin, wing-like membrane extends from the wrist to the heel, which can be folded in on itself to allow use of the hands. Completely unfurled, wingspans average from 9′ to 10′. At a 2:1 ratio, they are less aerodynamic than their aerial mounts, which is why they spend most of their time soaring from great heights. To increase altitude, the avian oscillates its wings in a manner similar to a hummingbird or a bat.

An avian’s feet are hard and scaly, with long, talon-like nails, which can be used for snatching prey and clinging to mountainsides. Their eyes glitter like crystal in the sun, and are much larger than a human’s, approximately the size of a lemon, with the iris extending to the edge of the skull.

Avian’s have little use for clothing, but are highly fond of ornamentation. Intricately wrought bangles of gold, jewels and semi-precious stones are commonly worn. Of their earliest traditions is that of the beaked mask, which mimics a myriad of bird species, albeit in abstract and impressionistic fashion.

CULTURE: Avians are reclusive and fearful, tending to avoid contact with other humanoid races. They are also proud, believing themselves morally and intellectually superior. This comes as no surprise, as their culture revolves around the concept of “ascendency.” Those of higher status live at greater altitudes, with their governing body, The Ascendency, dwelling at the very peak of Mount Nimbos. At 80,000 feet above Sea level, it is the highest point on Aenya. Their divine ancestors are imagined to live above them in the clouds.

Appearance is of utmost importance to an avian. Those born with more colorful plumage and bird-like features are thought to be more beautiful, and are more frequently selected for mating. Color also dictates social standing, marking regional and tribal divisions. Darker and more muted hues are considered less desirable, whereas blues and purples are indicative of royalty.

Despite their namesake, avians are mammals, and as such, do not hatch from eggs. They are born unable to fly, but slowly learn to glide as they mature. When an avian comes of age, at thirteen years, they are expected to partake in the Trial of Ascension. Tribal members gather upon the sacred plateau, known as The Crag of Destiny, whereby the uninitiated youth must prove their manhood by flying upwards onto a higher elevation, across a distance of one hundred and twelve feet. While a measure of air currents provide lift, many have been known to have died during the ceremony. Over the centuries, as the avian species evolved into its present state, the frequency of such deaths significantly decreased.

Most avians abhor violence, aside from the occasional hunt, but a small number of warriors are trained in use of the wingfoil, a lightweight sword consisting of many bladed feathers hammered together in the semblance of a silver wing.

Avians are skilled craftsmen, working with remarkably lightweight materials, including a lighter than air mesh called whisper. Whisper is used for everything, from clothing and receptacles to building material. The dome-shaped Tower of Heaven, where the Ascendency resides, is made from pure whisperstone.

RELIGION: The avian faith is a kind of ancestor worship. Those of higher social standing are more closely related to the first of their race, who is called Az, The Most High One. Az is thought to live above the world, in a city made of cloud, with his progeny. Each successive descendant falls lower in rank. These include Az’s son, Aza, his grandon, Azael, and his great-grandson, Azrael. King Azrael IX is said to be of this lineage.

 

 

BIOGRAPHIES: Grumblestump

Grumblestump by David Pasco

Grumblestump was born into the warrior caste. Named Grumblor by his mother, who died soon after giving birth, Grumblestump joined in the yearly bogren raids against the mountain city of Northendell. With Captain Sif leading the vanguard, the Knights of Northendell quickly routed the attackers, but Grumblor refused to flee. Believing he was destined for greatness, he fought his way to the outer wall, where he met Duncan Greyoak. The inexperienced bogren was no match for the man-at-arms, however, and Grumblor lost his hand at the wrist, which he crudely replaced with a single spike. He was called “Grumble-stump” ever since, and as a crippled warrior, was consigned to live in the mines among the digger caste, as a foreman.

Grumblestump would often speak of returning “top side” to regain his glory, despite the fact that foremen never become anything more than foremen. Fallen from the caste they are born into, foremen are bitter and cruel, and Grumblestump was no exception. With his spike hand, he tormented his workers at every opportunity. Slackers, particularly, were “tossed into the magma”—which, in bogren society, served as both a punishment and a sadistic form of comedy. Among those he liked to push around was a little digger named Ugh.

Even by digger standards, Ugh was physically lacking, but he more than made up for it in intelligence and compassion, traits which his kin did not recognize. One day, when Ugh was being called for digging, he met a new foreman named Meatface. “Where was Grumblestump?” Earlier that day, he had insulted Meatface’ mother, and Meatface responded the only way he knew how. The diggers were elated, using their former foreman’s decapitated head for a game of “kick-head.”

Thus, Grumblestump’s short and meaningless life came to an end. Ugh, however, used the opportunity, and his relative anonymity, to escape through a tunnel, where he discovered something truly magical, a place that would forever change his fate, and the fate of Aenya.

About the Story: This bio contains story elements from “Ages of Aenya” and “The Princess of Aenya.”

About the Artist: This is David Pasco’s first, 100% clay sculpt! Good job, David!

BIOGRAPHIES: Zaibos

Art by David Pasco

Many believe he is a demon, spawned from the fiery depths of Aenya. His monstrous appearance throws adversaries into a panic, and his boundless cruelty only confirms the myth of his origins. No wonder Zaibos, born as a man, comes to be known as the Monster King and the Lord of Agonies

He arrives in Tyrnael with his father, Anabis, from an unknown land, in answer to the summons of King Solon. To cure the princess, who is deathly ill, Anabis asks only that his son be adopted, and beset with grief and desperation, Solon acquiesces. Zaibos is fifteen at the time, and the princess, eleven. During their briefly shared childhood, the two play together, but Radia finds his utter lack of emotions disturbing. Even as a teen, he delights in the torment of small animals. Some say the boy’s lack of humanity stems from a lifetime of verbal and physical abuse, for Anabis is never seen to act kindly toward his son, and in his old age, the elder becomes increasingly strange and reclusive. By nineteen, Zaibos’ interests turn to the warlike history of the Zo, the ancient ancestors of the Tyrnaelian people, and he dedicates his every waking moment to the mastery of battle. After the untimely death of Solon, the boy seizes control of the army, and without Radia’s knowledge, engages in campaigns of aggression beyond the city’s mountain borders. Deep in the Eastern Hemisphere, he subdues the bogren host, and upon donning a suit of spikes, poses as a fiery deity. With an army of subhumans under his control, Zaibos turns south, besieging the city of Northendell, but falls at the hands of the Delian chief defender, Sif, Daughter of Thunder. 

As time in Tyrnael flows more slowly, so does Zaibos age more rapidly in relation to his step-sister, so that upon returning from his campaigns, he is grown into his thirties, though Radia remains a mere fifteen. Shortly after his arrival, with the full bent of the army behind him, he usurps the throne, and Radia is forced to flee for her life. The days following her flight are marked with despair and dread the likes the kingdom has never seen, as torture and executions become commonplace, and Zaibos’ true, sadistic nature is revealed to all. 

Scary

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Dungeons & Dragons: A Memoir: 1st Edition

DMsGuide
My first D&D book!

Once upon a time . . . there lived an elf named Hektor and a half-orc named Lattice. Hektor and Lattice were strolling through the woods when they came upon a group of lizard men. Lightning streaked the sky, and shortly after it began to rain, but the elf and the half-orc continued to spy on the reptilian gathering. The lizard men were standing over a stone circle set into the ground. One of them came forth holding a staff. He appeared to be a priest of some kind, enacting a ceremony. The circular stone was etched with runes, at the center of which was a hole. Now the wind was gusting and the lightning falling furiously. Hektor, being young and lusting for battle, rushed headlong into the scaly host, as Lattice, rolling his eyes at the predicament he was being drawn into, followed with mace in hand. A few bloody rounds later, all of the lizard men lay dead or dying, and the elf fighter and half-orc cleric victorious. But what was the ceremony all about? Was the staff meant to go into the stone circle, perhaps to open a stairway into some secret dungeon? It was at that point that the Dungeon Master, Michael Von Kreninsky III, got out of the booth, saying that he had to go. “But we only just started!” I complained. “Sorry, I’ve got a date,” he said, leaving my friend and I to wonder what would have happened to Hektor and Lattice had they completed the ritual. It’s been almost thirty years now and I am still wondering. 

This was the summer of ’87, a primitive time before YouTube, iPhones or DVDs. All we had were Fridays at the movies and the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the only thing worth playing was Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. My friends and I were getting too old for toys and desperately needed something to keep us busy for three months. That’s when we met Michael, an eighteen year old college student working for my dad as a pizza cook. He introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons, giving me a binder of adventures he had made in the seventies, along with his beat up copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I held that book in my hand as if it were magic, because for me at least, it was. Such a book could open pathways to any place and time, allowing us to be anything, do anything. We were bound only by the limits of our imagination. Unfortunately, Michael did not stick around to teach us how to play, so I spent weeks struggling with rules, never realizing how poorly written those seventies books were, or that I was missing some key components like The Player’s Handbook.


Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition

Eventually, my friends and I learned the game. It was me, my friend George Lakiotis, and Mark Carlisimo. We would hang out all day in the back room of my dad’s restaurant, drawing maps and rolling dice. I’d always been an imaginative kid, but this was like a powerful hallucinogenic bringing everything in my mind to life, the DMT of games. And I was Sir Marek the Brave, a human fighter, who eventually became the “Nova Knight.” 

Sir Marek, drawn in 1988, photoshopped 2010

George was a wizard named Heraldo, who looked a lot like the news pundit, and Mark was the half-orc cleric, Lattice. My first world, I’m ashamed to say, was Nick’s Realm. It included wonderfully inventive places like Elf City, Dwarf City and Human City. But we eventually set sail from Nick’s Realm to explore other worlds, hacking and slashing our way through countless dungeons and monsters. In Egypt, we suffered the curse of Anubis, after looting his temple. In Greece, we met with Heracles and Bellerophon, from whom Sir Marek earned his magical Spartan-like helmet. In Norway, we helped Thor find a magic jewel that had fallen from his hammer, Mjolnir. There wasn’t a mythological setting beyond our reach! Then, as we were preparing to storm the gates of Orcus, Prince of Demons, Sir Marek and Heraldo got into a fight. You see, for the longest time, I had been a jerk to my friend, putting him down for his lack of effort, even though he did manage to DM a lot, including the time Sir Marek killed a red dragon to gain a +4 Sword of Defending. I also tended to insult him when he couldn’t find a solution to a puzzle. But the larger problem was that we were growing apart. George only cared for skateboarding and hanging out with his skateboarding buddies. I owned a skateboard, mostly for his sake, and could do a 180 without much difficulty, but George excelled way beyond me, rail sliding down stairwells and ollying small dogs and doing other crazy shit I simply did not have the dexterity for. So, while I wanted to throw dice, he just wanted to gleam the cube.

George had the skills. Me, not so much.

But what really put the nail in Sir Marek’s sarcophagus was what would seem today utterly ludicrous, that thing being SATAN. No, I’m not talking about the impossible boss from Ghosts n’ Goblins, but the very real Satan, the same guy religious people believe in. 

That’s right . . . SATAN!

At the time, my mother was forcing me to take Greek lessons, but when it came to God, my tutor was bat shit crazy. Now it wasn’t as if I had no experience with fundamentalism. For eight straight years, I attended a Baptist School, where I was forced to wear ties on Wednesdays and thank God for every damn pencil and eraser I brought to class, and where I was told not to watch He-Man or Transformers because they were satanic. But my Greek teacher took things to Scarlet Letter-levels of insanity. This was a woman who, after the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster, told me, in all seriousness, that the astronaut crew had been killed for “trying to reach God.” 

God’s divine punishment. Hey, who’s the good god here?


She also refused to attend her own son’s wedding when he married outside of the Orthodox Church. So, naturally, when she learned of my gaming habits, she made it her mission to put a stop to it. As far as she was concerned, my friend and I were spending our weekends worshiping Satan. Of course, I could not have cared less what the batty old lady had to say, but my mother took the whole thing seriously. She forbade me from D&D, and what’s worse, George’s mother caught wind of it and did the same. Despite my attempts to explain RPGs, I could not convince my mother that the game was just a game and nothing to fear. 

Unfortunately, I was still at an impressionable age being brainwashed both at school and at home, so that after a while, paranoia started to creep in, and I got to thinking that maybe there was something to this satanic stuff. After all, I’d been taught since kindergarten that demons were real. In retrospect, Dungeons & Dragons posed a threat not to my soul, but to my indoctrination. I mean, the Monster Manual treated demons and devils like any other made up creature. Logic follows that if the unicorn on p. 200 is imaginary, why not Asmodeus, Lord of the Ninth Plane of Hell, found on p. 10? This was especially challenging to my faith, because I was raised to believe in the Bible, not just the realistic parts, but even the Book of Revelation with its seven headed dragon. If some of it turned out to be fiction, so could all of it . . . and maybe even God was just another deity from Hebrew mythology. But I was far too young, and unprepared, to handle such an existential crisis, and it led me to having nightmares, and to tearing out the pages of demons and devils from my Monster Manual. Sure, it might sound extreme, but this was a different time, when even the media occasionally lost its mind over supernatural nonsense. I remember being in the library with my D&D books, when a strange lady stopped to warn me of the dangers of fantasy. Even journalists, who should have known better, got taken in by the hysteria. According to the article, “The Most Dangerous Game,” D&D can lead to suicide! Of course, this cause and effect argument is the oldest in the proverbial book of fallacies. Using the same logic, if you like to eat peanut butter and kill yourself, we can all blame peanuts for suicide. But remember, this was the eighties, long before Doom and Diablo and World of Warcraft, back when parents fretted over everything and anything their kids were doing that they did not understand, so even TSR, the makers of D&D, bowed to the pressure, releasing a 2nd edition without any mention of devils or demons (they went by other names).

Ultimately, I was forced to quit reading and writing and drawing and being creative in so many ways, but religion wasn’t entirely to blame; it was also my best friend, who had suddenly grown a conscience. And that was what really infuriated me. This was a guy who never went by the rules, a true rebel without a cause, getting an earring (a big deal at the time), smoking and even stealing his mom’s car. But when it came to D&D, he just had to obey. Despite so many happy memories, the game tore our friendship apart. Only later did I realize my role in our falling out, for putting him down all the time. We simply had different ability scores. His was for skateboarding, and mine for writing.

I continued Sir Marek’s adventures in my Novel of the Nova Knight series, but my gaming days were over. That was, until, my senior year of high school, and Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.

Quest for the Talismans: Monsters!

I love monsters!

What’s a great role playing board game without monsters? And the more the merrier! My fondest memories from the early days of D&D is how much I loved my Monster Manual; it was a dusty old book from the seventies given to me by a cook at my father’s restaurant. The brittle, yellowed pages only added to that sense of mystique about the game. I used to gaze long and hard at the flat, black & white sketches and fantasize about the day when my character, Sir Marek the Brave, might have to battle them. Of course, the artwork looks pathetic by today’s standards, and any search for monster art on deviantArt will almost certainly garner superior work. But keep in mind this was the eighties and the Internet was a thing undreamed of.

What I like about the monster system in Quest for the Talismans is its simplicity. You only have to know a few numbers, so it’s easy to make your own monster from your imagination or from images you find around the Web. I collect miniatures used for gaming at hobby shops. To encourage players to think creatively, some monsters include action rolls, because hacking and slashing at a creature until it drops dead is just plain boring, not to mention unrealistic. As a writer, I have always had a hard time imagining a knight stabbing a dragon to death. But what if the knight could climb on the dragon’s back? Reach for its head to drive his magic sword through the dragon’s brain? Now the whole battle seems more feasible, but there are no mechanics in D&D to set that in motion. I suppose there are players who imagine just such a scenario, but the dice doesn’t account for how difficult it must be to jump on a moving monster’s backside.


Now that I have switched over to WordPress, I can offer the complete QUEST FOR THE TALISMANS BOARD GAME for free as a downloadable PDF file!

Quest for the Talismans 5.0

The Gorgon’s Lover

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Let me tell you how I killed her—how I killed the only woman I ever loved. I am a wretched thing, truly, and have little else to offer but this story. Hear me out, if you are wanting for a tragedy, but I give you fair warning: this is no tale for children or the weak of heart, but a thing to curdle the blood, to raise the small hairs of the body.
To know my story, you must know of how I came to Aea. You have heard tales, no doubt, of that fabled isle where no one knows hunger, where the women are as beautiful and as willing as the nymphs. Aea does not appear on any map, and no two sailors will agree on where to find it, but it is no myth.
In the dawn of manhood I found myself a recluse, wandering between the lands. Having never known family or a home, the world was joyless and bitter, and I unprepared for it, for the way men battled starvation. The gods are angry, people say, so these are dark times. And so life for me was a waiting for death.
War gave me hope for better days. Nibia marshaled its forces against the Dark Hemisphere. There was hope of crushing the bogrens so that men might venture forth without fear to farm what had been despoiled. Bold men and women came from throughout all Ænya, vagabonds such as I, lending their swords to the cause. In this I found purpose, and was determined to it, to win the war alone if need be.
We paraded through the streets, reveling before the first blow was struck. Fate smiled on me, or so I thought, and a new age of prosperity seemed within reach.
We pushed onto that shore of eternal twilight, fighting along the border. The first cycles were promising, merciless. We trampled over bodies, the dead stretching to the horizon, and many of the lost lands were reclaimed. The Nibian commander, his heart bolstered by victory, longed to push deeper into that sunless land, to make it so that no bogren could challenge mankind again. But soldiers who had not blinked before uncounted hordes fled upon crossing into that accursed wasteland. Our commander was accused of hubris; they said such vanity was an affront to the gods. Fearing mutiny, we were led back to the western hemisphere. Everyone was in good spirits but I, who longed to spill more of the blood of those mongrels.
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After two cycles marching across cold dead rock, the sun began to show on our faces. We boarded a ship, which seemed safest passage to Nibia as bogrens have deathly fear of water, but our eyes never met that familiar shore. The fleet met with a storm, churning, black, unholy as Hades. Debris ripped the hull to pieces and all but two joined Sargonus, God of the Sea, in the depths. I was the one. The other was a soldier and a friend of mine. His name was Valis.
We clutched at the splintered hull until our fingertips were raw and swollen, our throats parched, our shoulders simmering under the intense gaze of the sun. Adrift in misery, we longed to have died honorably on the battlefield. But we shuddered at the thought of our bodies being desecrated, used by bogrens in some perverse, ungodly ritual.
Sargonus took pity on us, or so I believed. I woke with a hard stretch of earth beneath my cheek, and in the bright blaze of morning the sand was radiant and golden and blessedly coarse against my fingertips. Within a few paces, Valis stood shakily, and I was overjoyed to see him. For a brief moment, I hoped we’d died on a good day and journeyed to Alashiya. But as strength returned to my limbs, I realized that I was not gone to the Taker, but trapped in the same emaciated body. With great effort, I pushed myself from the tide coursing through the fringes of my beard, my body heavy as if bound in bronze. Wasted with hunger, my ribs could easily be counted beneath the skin. I squinted through salt lined eyelids toward brilliant clover-green hills, to icy peaks touching the sky. Was I in paradise? Ages adrift in briny waters, any land would have been.
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That night, we camped on the beach, resting against a reef which cut against the tide like the keel of a ship. When the light of morning pried open our eyes, we foraged for clams and seaweed, and after regaining some strength, I studied the zigzag rim of mountains to determine what kingdom we’d been tossed upon.
We set out for civilization on the second day, falling speechless before the unfolding coastline. The cliffs lifted from the Sea like wild, white brush strokes, and the Sea was tranquil as a pond. We could not tell where waves met sky, but for a silver, translucent disc—the moon—mirrored in the ripples of the waters.
We continued along the beach, seeking a path through the rocks, till coming upon sections of colonnades jutting from the rock as if long ago abandoned. Lying across the water, a hundred paces from shore, was a half-submerged statue—a robed woman—whose glaring eye could have eclipsed the sails of our ship. It was there we first glimpsed signs of life, clinging to the mountainside and all about the arms of a harbor, atop islets rising in loops from the waves: houses, gleaming whitely in the sun, with domes and doors and shutters awash in blue.
A half day trek through dense foliage and we came to a clearing of huts made of mud and straw. The islanders went about without clothing of any kind, oblivious to shame or modesty. They were adorned only in trinkets of bone, lapis lazuli or gold, and with patterns of tattooing or branding. With our clothing in tatters, we’d feared the natives might take us for vagabonds, but seeing how it did not matter, we discarded what shreds still clung to our bodies and went about as the natives.
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Like no other people I’d known, the islanders devoted themselves to leisure, to singing and dancing and to spinning pottery into every shape of the imagination. They moved with such gaiety, you might think their feet never touched the earth. At last I had found . . . a radiant people. For them, there was no age of darkness. Here was no hint of misery. In that moment I began to feel, in that most simple state of being, the weight of existence lift from my shoulders.
Though we could not imagine such people harming us, we were too accustomed to suspicion to walk out into the open. And though practicing their custom of nakedness, we resembled outcasts in that we were in need of grooming.
On the third day, Valis stole a knife of volcanic glass from a hunter, resisting the urge to cut more than a morsel from the spit where a boar had been roasting. I gazed longingly at my friend as he ate, fearing how closely I must resemble him. The greasy sliver of meat fell with a thump into my stomach and the succeeding sensation of hollowness only increased my hunger. At last we resolved to cut our beards, and when we sufficiently resembled the islanders, set out for the blue and white domiciles.
The islanders strolled past us, our emergence met with indifference, for we were no more haggard than the fisherman with his carts of tangled netting. The youth and the poor went about as freely as the primitives in the woods, but the highborn women of childbearing age went to market in pleated robes, as the men labored in kilts and sandals. Despite the urge to learn more about this strange land, we held our tongues.
With the memory of boar still on our palettes, hunger continued to gnaw at us, but Valis and I were without anything to barter. We could not hope even to kill for food, as our weapons were lost to the depths.
Coming upon the city center, we were taken aback by what such a simple people had made. Save for Hedonia with its towering domes and pediments, we’d never witnessed such architecture. Three temples stood, mirroring one another, forming a square. Joy and wonderment and hope mixed in our throats, believing that, as in our own places of worship, the temples must serve as houses of charity.
We made our way to the east temple, eager to hide from the sun amid long columns of shadow. Strange gods of stone frolicked along the pediment, but we did not hesitate to pass under the threshold where the air was cool and crisp.
What came to greet us loosed our hearts like racing horses. The clerics of the temple were women, beautiful beyond measure, formed from the stuff of men’s fantasies. They were in states of undress, in hanging silk and peels of gold, in peacock feathers worn in ways that excited our curiosity. Their beauty overcame even the bray of my stomach, reminding me of another, long forgotten hunger. Valis and I were welcomed with butterfly eyelashes, with gestures of hand and hip. What the priestesses discovered must have been pleasing to them and I suppose that even in our haggard state Valis and I were handsome, for one of the older women spoke and we were led into a cavernous space.
We lifted sun beaten eyes to the welcoming lips of a nude goddess. Between her ankles, in a mosaic of splendorous hues, was a clear pool. Without a word, they proceeded to strip off their loose garments, stealing imagination from my mind, and like children we were led to bathe. Fingers soft and white as pearl brushed against me. Hands from many bodies probed my war ravaged frame like serpents seeking to feed. With every caress—a hard day’s marching, a night shivering in hunger, a friend wailing in blood—one by one the memories left me like dead leaves in the gale.
We learned that this was the Temple of Irene, Goddess of Love and Peace. Of the other two goddesses we did not bother ask. We were mesmerized by beauty. And my friend and I were given everything a man might crave, food and clothing, and a warm body to spill our seed.
The nightly orgies became all, and our hearts were enslaved. The women explored each perverse action with abandon, indulgences of which I am too shamed to describe. How many succumbed to me, or I, rather, to their lustful appetites, I dare not count. Every eye and lip, bosom and hip and buttocks, became indistinct in the sweat, in the revelry—their names unspoken, unremembered.
This was my poison, as deadly as any bogren’s dagger. The moons came and went and came again, and I no longer waited for night with zeal but dreariness. As for my companion, he never tired of his new existence, continuing into each night as if his lust could only grow out of depravity.
Though my body was restored, a great gaping emptiness was left in me, as if I’d been torn open by a mortar. Despising the wretch I had become, I longed to hold a sword again, to hear the dying of my enemy. Driven mad by the sensation, I abandoned my sanctuary to explore the others, wondering if they, too, functioned as consecrated whorehouses. The central temple was the most grand, a shrine to Zoë, goddess of Life, Wisdom and Balance. Only women served the goddess, their beauty paling before what I had known, but unlike those whores who knew to satisfy only the flesh, the servants of Zoë were wise in philosophy and astronomy. By then, I could understand a little of the Aean language, and with the aid of a Zoë priestess, I learned to speak fluently.
The third temple honored Maki, of War and Virtue. This is where I found my true self . . . and my greatest cause for grief.
***
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Her name was Midiana. Hers is the face burned under my eyes, the image that shines alone in the darkness.
The goddess in her battle helmet, with her sword and shield of serpents, possessed a hard, somber beauty that made me feel intimidated. At Maki’s heel, a priestess was kneeling with bird seed as snow-white peacocks, camouflaged against the stone, nipped at her palms. She was half in silhouette, the shadows playing across the nape of her neck where the torchlight touched her. Her hair was black as pitch against the gleaming white of her chiton, every strand threaded into braids as thick as ropes. When she noticed me, it was like looking into the sun—there was such beauty to be found in those ample lips and dark amber eyes—so much like a bird’s eyes—I feared to go blind dare I stare too long.
The priestess was in shock, scattering seed everywhere as the great white birds scampered after it. To my inquiries, she responded with measured and quavering lips, as her forearm hid the sight of me. I’d feared such a reaction cycles ago, upon first engaging the islanders, but was unprepared for it now that I had come to know, in more ways than one, the locals of Aea. She was quick to make it known that nakedness was forbidden in the temple, and I felt suddenly ashamed, for I’d grown accustomed to not wearing clothes. She went on to tell me that no male was to step foot over the goddess’ threshold, that even the white birds sacred to Maki were female. Confounded by the extreme difference of customs, I could do nothing but apologize and take my leave.
As morning crept under my eyes, I realized sleep had not taken me the whole of the night. And I knew, like the bee born knowing of the flower, the hollowness I’d long suffered was for her—that nothing could fill the gaping in me but her presense.
Mystified, I returned to the east temple, to find comfort in the company of my old companion. But by that time, he was no more the proud warrior who’d slaughtered bogrens by my side. He had grown, in fact, quite pale, and his belly sagged about the waist, and like a fattened hog he lolled about in nothing but a crown of laurel leaves. I found him on the steps, like a king retired from conquest, laughing like a fool at some base amusement. I pitied what he’d become, but had not the strength to tell him. Upon seeing me, his face brightened, and I told him of the beautiful priestess girl and my pining for her. As a remedy, he invited me to a frolic with the devotees of Irene. My heart did not rise to the idea, but I agreed to join him.
The air was heavy and wet with jasmine and rosewater, and the music of the lyre echoed from the chambers of the sacred pools where stone gods gazed with coy smiles and mock shame. The women in the dim firelight were young and shapely and eager to please, but to the abasement of my pride, I was powerless to engage in the act. I had cycles in which to spill my seed, but again I felt, more than ever, that sense of repulsion.
I abandoned the temple, restless and alone beneath the great moon. The bright turquoise disc seen by kingdoms near and far reminded me of my wandering days, and the vast spread of constellations looked distantly on me in my isolation.
Dressed in a borrowed chiton, I found her in an orchard behind the Temple of Maki, with a rake of sorts, beating olives into a basket. But she did not know me. Was I forgotten so quickly? How awful that seemed when I’d studied her every line for hours, grating thin my brain with the thought of her!
With greatest care to not mangle her language, I offered her my name. It sounded oddly from her lips, my name echoing in her exotic, dulcet inflection like a butterfly painted in vibrant colors I’d never before seen. As politeness was custom, she introduced herself also; ­Midiana, she told me she was called, but it was more than a name to me; it was a magic word, a secret spell of power. Tradition forbade her from speaking further, she explained, but after decades of peace and prosperity the law had become lax. Nevertheless, she made it known that I was never to touch her—that to graze a single of her hairs was sacrilege. Foolhardy as a man is in his youth, I did not heed the little wisdom that was in me, but persisted.
Worlds divided us . . . I was like a bird who loves a fish, and the sense of awkwardness was like a fist in my gut. Did she look away from me with disgust for my sex, or fear for her god? Were her words, tipped with ice, out of indifference, or something more sinister?
Keeping at arm’s length, I raised an empty basket and a rake. We worked alongside one another in silence but for the subtle swish and thump of dropping olives. My forearms became sore and my brow sweaty as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter and higher. She, all the while, moved lightly as a moth, her bare feet turning in a kind of dance to each tree.
With five bushels full and only the bright green of unripe fruit left on the branches, I chanced to ask of the island and of her religion, and of things already known to me so that I might listen to the song of her voice. Like a cleric eager to convert one to their faith, her tongue came unknotted, and she began to explain many things.
Maki delivers punishment to those who blaspheme her or her sisters, Zoë and Irene. The goddess also protects the island from foreigners. Ships wandering close to Aea are split apart by storms. I am ashamed to admit that, even as she told me this, it did not occur to me to think upon my own lost crew. Love for my fellow comrades paled to nothing before her beauty. Both sexes worship idols of Maki, but only a woman can be called to divine the will of the gods. As in every aspect of Aean culture, the female is dominant. Even in war, women go into battle. A female follower of Maki knows a man only in marriage, but a priestess can never be touched by the male sex.
After a little while—or was it many hours?—no more questions could bridge the distance between us; and her eyes—in which I’d found sanctuary from the cold hard surfaces of existence—drifted away from me. I became an apparition beside her, of no more consequence than the moonlight in her hair. Her indifference, and my powerlessness, gnawed at my innards until I could suffer it no longer, and with little ceremony I crept off into the night.
For some days I continued to lend her my hands. When cloistered in the temple, I awaited her from afar. Once, she shooed me away, so that other priestesses not discover me. At any moment she could have had me banished, and it gave me hope when she did not.
With the cycle of the moons, I learned the pattern of her outings, for the temple priestesses, even those of Irene, functioned in an orderly manner. When Midiana remained indoors to pray, I found comfort in solitude, in roaming the hills and the dry brush wilderness about the outskirts of the city.
One day she was in the courtyard with a sword. Her movements were graceful, hypnotic, but of little use in battle. I knew the priestesses of Maki were warriors, but peace had dulled their skills. Their training was now ritual, more art than war. She took great care presenting the sword to me, and I resisted the urge to brush a fingertip against her. The hilt was exceedingly ornate, looping patterns etched in gold and jade, like the bands about her forearms. Her face watched me from the mirror surface of the blade. I showed her how to use it, how to kill with it, swinging the weapon with such force that I feared to snap it in twain. Each thrust was to a vital part of the body: the underbelly, the knees, the part of the neck that separates the head . . .
Midiana was fascinated, and it was not long before the thread of her questions turned to me and my origins. She confessed in never knowing battle, and when I related tales of the Nibian War, she quivered with horror, finding the whole bloody ordeal too awful to listen to. At birth, a priestess is chosen to be raised in one of the three temples, but Midiana was not, nor could ever be, a warrior.
We practiced swordplay until our shadows stretched across the courtyard, and I dared to ask if it was not sacrilege to change her fate, to perhaps become a priestess of Zoë, but she withdrew from me like a frightened hare. I did not see her after that for two days, and cursed my tongue for separating me from my love.
When my eyes touched sight of her again, she drifted through the temple’s colonnades burdened and insignificant between the massive stone columns weighing upon her. And then she chanced to lift her gaze to see me and was weightless again. Love radiated as the sun upon the world, and as her eyes lingered on mine, more was spoken between us than any words can convey. We were separated by ten paces, mouthing words of affection, and then she was called away.
When the sun was deep in the moon and all were in dreams, we carried on in hushed, frightful voices. She was more beautiful than any goddess could ever be, with hair a deep violet in the moonlight, crowned by the pinks and violets of the bougainvillea climbing the pillars of the gazebo where we sat. With tears that glistened like diamonds, she lamented her fate—how she could not abandon the priesthood to become my wife. I was taken aback to hear it, having doubted the depth of her love for me. At once, I grieved for us, and confessed all that was in me, and in hearing it she showed no apprehension, but soaked up my words as if she could not survive otherwise. I vowed to return and to sit by her, till my limbs no longer carry me, if only to adore her with eyes and ears. With that, she tore at her robes as if burning in them, letting the once noble cloth in tatters, and embraced me. I did what was in my nature, touching wherever her fingers led me, and no part of her remained sacred.
We found warmth in the cool twilight air. With the sun behind Infinity, we were as united silhouettes, but we dared not be discovered and hid like shamefaced children in a copse of basil. That was time enough for me to regain my reasoning, and like removing an arrow from my side, I suggested we abstain from doing what we had been about to, my fear for her great. At this she flew into a rage, pulling at her braids, clawing at her skin, and I was astounded to hear her cursing Maki with the foulest of obscenities, vowing to offer up her maidenhood should it mean her death. I shuddered at the oath, but she persisted, and whatever power I had to resist her wasted away, and hand-in-hand we ventured into the temple, our hearts thrumming in our chests. “It’s the only place,” she murmured, “where we will not be seen.” I asked about the other priestesses, but she assured me that they were deep in the slumber of undiluted wine and could not be awakened. “No one will know,” she added, and I nodded, captivated by her will, tailing her into the Shrine of Maki.
Across a floor of semiprecious stones, before the eyes of that wrathful goddess, in that sacred chamber where no male was to set foot, I seized her body and she mine. Nude and entwined, we gave shape to our love, and worshipped each other in words and actions. And though the walls echoed with her elation, we continued untamed, freely exploring every facet that made us man or woman, relishing in our bonded flesh all the more in that we defiled the sanctity of the temple.
What possessed us so? What devils of lust turned us to madness? Was it mere love? I cannot say. When the deed was done, we lay wet and breathy in each other’s arms. I felt the victor of a great battle, of a great war, but the moment of ecstasy, of bliss, was fleeting. Spread and broken and overflowing white with seed, Midiana turned to me and whispered, with such shuddering fear I cannot ever hope to forget,
“. . . What have we done . . .?”
Wisdom erupted from my brain into my consciousness, but it was for naught, for what I witnessed then was a terror beyond comprehension. Sensing some motion in the corners of my eye, my head froze upon the ceiling, fixed upon the scowling face of a living, breathing idol.
“MIDIANA,” the goddess bellowed, and my love shot upward, shaking gruesomely with terror, desperately clutching the remains of her robe to hide her nakedness. Oh, how she turned pale, and fell on her face in penitence! Alas, how she wept for mercy before that somber, pitiless visage. I could hear her murmuring, like a small child, “Forgive . . . forgive . . .” But the idol did not care to listen, delivering justice with its massive, pointing finger. Midiana jolted, like a fish on an invisible hook, and her chiton dropped weakly from her fist. With panic and rage, I demanded to know what was happening to my beloved. But already I could see it. Midiana’s figure convulsed like a marionette on the strings of a drunken puppeteer. Her fair flesh was turning hard and pressing up through the skin: scales. As I stood, powerless and desperate, the goddess’ words hammered in my ears: “FOR SUCH SACRILAGE, THERE SHALL BE NO DELIVERANCE FROM ME, AS YOU HAVE SWORN—BUT LIFE IMMORTAL! AS GREAT THE GIFT OF BEAUTY THAT YOU HAVE KNOWN, SO SHALL YOU KNOW, FOR AS LONG AS THE STARS BURN: UGLINESS. AND ALL WHO SEE YOU WILL SHUDDER AND BECOME UNMOVING, AND BECOME LIKE STONE.”
I reached out, to snatch her from that judgment, my eyes following her transformation as if to steal her beauty in memory. But she stumbled away, hiding her face with a claw that once had been a hand. “Titian!” she wailed, in a voice I accepted, with great reluctance and despair, to be hers. She begged me not look, and in that there was no other way to ease her suffering, I did as she asked and turned away. With what little sanity endured in her, she pleaded that I flee. Despite her new form, my love endured, but I knew that whatever stood before my clenched eyelids was far from human, far from my Midiana . . . so I abandoned her, looking back once to see a shadow across the breast of a lifeless statue, and oh how that writhing shadow made me shiver and look once more away.

***

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Waves crashed against the reef, collapsing over my waist in a cold frothy mist. I’d often visit that rock to listen to the waters and remember my life before Aea. The shore was at thirty paces, and I could still see the depression of our camp in the sand. More than ever, I longed for peace in my soul, for the freedom from worry granted in death. If only I were as fortunate as my Nibian crewmen to never again know the burden of living!
Without her, I was an empty shell, without will, without a soul. But guilt was my tormentor, for I was to blame for Midiana’s affliction, I who envied the loveliest ilm in the garden, having ripped her from the roots so her loveliness decay. Maki, that cruelest of gods, found fault in the innocent. I deserved to be cursed . . . I who had wallowed in that cesspool of flesh, in that den of whores . . . what had Midiana known of such debauchery?
Alas, there was no sacrifice to make to undo this evil. I cried until my throat gave out, so that my own gods might hear, yet they were deaf to me. As the echo of my anguish carried out to Sea, something glittered in my sight. Embedded in a reef, beaded in the salty spray, was a familiar length of silver. Had the gods taken pity on me after all? Seeing my old sword again conjured bitter joys of bloodshed. Torn between those twin tidal forces of existence, between thoughts of love and thoughts of death, the dreadful solution became clear. Remembering the oath she had made, I vowed by my sword she’d not live a monster.
I walked straightway from the beach, and in that it was midday, the sun beat down on me and I succumbed to delirium. The sword burdened my shoulder with more weight than ever on the battlefield. Had I grown weak since coming to the island? Or was it the heaviness of the deed that pulled on me? Never had I lifted my sword with the intent to murder; how could I turn it against one I adored? But was any part of her still my Midiana? Would she recognize me, or was her mind transformed as well? The more I thought on these things, the more uneasy I became, and nearing the city as I had a hundred times before, I fancied it all a dream. After all, who could have believed it?
Clouds rolled over the city, like those which had brought ruin to the Nibian vessel, casting a gloom over the rooftops and gardens and fountains, the deepest part of the storm looming above the square with its three temples. I had never seen a sunless day on Aea. It was now evident, to all the islanders, that some curse had befallen them.
Above the Temple of Maki, the storm churned angrily like some living thing, like a black whirlpool in the sky. Thousands were gathering there, and the shadows were thick as pitch, revealing each face in sharp relief. To my utter amazement, vines had grown overnight, wrapping every pillar in thorns, weaving across the steps and down from the pediment. Not a gossiping murmur came from the islanders, not a fearful gasp. It was as if they were holding a silent vigil for a procession of the dead. Only their shuffling feet broke over the rumble of the sky, as the people were drawn, trancelike, to the befouled temple. But the islanders kept at a distance as if what had infected the walls might also infect them. My heart throbbed with guilt to see it, a people of such free spirit, of such playfulness and innocence, now muted and pitiable like the condemned marching to execution. I wanted to surrender myself to them. I hungered for their scorn, their jeers, but such emotion was beyond their capacity.
They parted to let me through like docile sheep. Deep into the crowd, I came upon a chain of priestesses, linked wrist-to-wrist before the temple. I recognized their faces and was ashamed, remembering what they had done to me, and I to them. Zoë’s acolytes were there also, as were the women from the befouled temple, yet all stood united in the same pure white garment with gold lace about their ankles and hair. Love and Wisdom and Virtue stood together, penitent before the angered god. Beneath that great churning cloud, every face was statuesque, every chin high and proud, no woman less than another. The Priestesses of Aea were joined in a ring like rigid columns beneath an invisible circular temple, their chanting a low murmur of contrition.
Others looked on with reverence, their eyes glazed with zealotry, but I was far from owing respect to that god of cruelty. I pulled a young girl out of her ritual, demanding to know what was happening. “Maki is angry,” she told me, and a follower of Zoë added, “The balance has been broken.” She looked as frightened and helpless as the rest. I asked if anyone had gone in. “Only one,” a voice replied. It was a woman who had known Valis and me intimately. Her face was solemn and world weary, as a mother with aged children, the perverse rituals I’d known of her seeming unthinkable. “Your friend, Valis . . .” she murmured. “We tried, but nothing could dissuade him. He was adamant to find you.”
“Let me go,” I cried, but they would not let me through the ring, and many more turned to me, saying it was forbidden. Hearing the word forbidden loosed something dark within me, and I fell into frenzy, pulling apart their joined hands.
I cut through the web of thorns and crossed into that vast, cold lair. With my sword tight against me, I moved inward, the mosaics on the walls turning monstrous in the flickering light. Rows of fluted marble flanked my sides. Barrel arches beckoned to infinity, like when a mirror reflects upon another. Like a prowling thief I searched the temple, hiding from pillar to pillar. My friend I could not hear, nor Midiana; and I dared not call out for fear of what might answer. In the deadening silence, my breathing was like a windstorm, the crackling and popping of unseen torches like thunder.
The memory of Midiana’s beauty contested with my dreadful imagination, and I recognized the morbid curiosity in me, to look wide eyed upon what she had become. But the deeper I probed in the gloom of the temple, the more the thought terrified me. How grotesque can a living thing be? Would Maki’s words ring true? Would my mental faculties withhold? I was more frightened than in the heart of the Dark Hemisphere, for death is a trifling thing, a peaceful repose, but to lose one’s sanity is to live a nightmare from which there is no waking.
Answering my thoughts, I crossed upon a long shadow and the silhouette of a man. I knew it to be Valis, but what I discovered struck me with both awe and despair. Valis stood, ashen as the marble at his feet, his every follicle a thorn. Did the shadows deceive me? No. I looked into his face, into pupils like inkblots fixed in the chalk white orbs of his eyes. Whether living or dead, I could not say, for there was no trace of life within him but that he remained standing. I went to rouse him only to snap my hand away, for what I had touched was nothing like flesh. All the warmth in that virile body had gone. Like weathered flagstone, I expected his arm to break off should I touch it again. And then the inkblots moved, and I leapt, catching a scream in my throat.
My love for him bolstered my courage, and placing my ear to his marble cold lips, I bid he speak to me.
“I came to look for you.” It was so subtle a sound that I doubted it, whether coming from him or my own skull. But then he was pleading, begging, as if he knew I would not obey. “Don’t look at her, Titian! Don’t look at her! Turn back!”
His final breath escaped with those words, and I grieved for my friend, for his senseless death on my behalf. There was no denying that he was victim to Maki’s curse, that upon seeing my priestess, Valis was changed into something less like flesh and more like stone. Stricken by his fate, my heart gave way to such terror, I feared the blood might burst out of me completely. One thought kept me from breaking my vow and fleeing, and I spoke it aloud, so the walls echo with her name. Love remained, greater than any fear.
Turning in search of her, something crept beneath my feet with such a noise that the hairs on my neck pricked in warning, and then a human shape, familiar yet strange, silhouetted the light from the adjoining hall. My sweat turned to ice and my spine became limp as straw. I could do nothing but run, gripped by such dread I worked my feet awkwardly across the floor like a crippled soldier.
Where was I headed? Back to the comfort of daylight? But already that voice, that horrid voice was calling me. I prayed for deafness, imagining what such a creature might be to make that sound, and I accepted Valis’ wisdom, never turning to face what chased me.
The temple became a maze of shadows and flames and fluted colonnades. Gasping at air like a dying fish, I found shelter by the one torch still burning, before that scowling idol of Maki. At my feet, a splendor of multicolored stones fanned out, and in my mind’s eye our naked and entwined bodies groped like ghosts across the mosaic.
I had hoped the monster to avoid the light, to hide its ugliness in darkness, but her shape was already forming about my eyes, and I was amazed by its size, for surely it stood above me! And that awful voice came again, and I could no longer deny it . . . the sounds it had been making—over and over amidst those tortured syllables—was my name.
“Do you not still love me, Titian? Why do you flee from me?”
“Midiana!” I cried weakly, ashamed that I could not bear to lift my eyes, my sword slipping from my numb and quaking fingers.
Her answer was acid in my ears, “I am no longer she, but the guardian of the Shrine of Maki.”
Redemption was beyond me, yet I fell to my knees, my hands as blindfolds, begging that she show some sign of her former self, some understanding of me and my remorse.
“Look at me!” she wailed, her shadow suggesting a darting, slithering motion, “See what you’ve made me!”
Embattled by love and pity and shame and remorse, I wept. I wept and like a madman beat at my naked breast.
It—or she—moved within my circle of light. I could sense her presense, creeping like maggots, her tortured voice riddling me with gooseflesh, “Titian! Oh, Titian . . .! Truly, you must love me, for even as I am, you return to me. Now we shall be together forever.”
Only then did I come to understand, with a sickness growing in my heart, the full extent of Maki’s curse—for our love had not been abolished, but perverted, twisted into a thing unrecognizable and repulsive. Cast into madness, I screamed, throwing down the torch stand. But the fire still flickered from the mosaic, and by chance she hooked my eye, and I saw where the light crept over the rough surface of a reptilian thing with cream-colored fish eyes in what vaguely suggested a woman’s—Midiana’s—face. I turned as if blinded by a wasp’s stinger, but I could still feel her caress drawing lines of blood across my shoulders. If not for the sword at my ankle reminding me of my vow, I might have stood there forever, blinded and quivering in her embrace.
To be done mercifully, I knew, was to be done quickly, but even then, even then, I loved her. And in that moment’s pity, something writhed about the edges of my sword, a tangle of braided serpents, their fangs pressing like needles into my lips, nose, working their way through my clenched eyelids. Her claws were at my throat now and the wiry serpents continued to nip and draw blood. I was paralyzed, the sword unwieldy in her embrace. But then I remembered the torch stand, and righting it with my heel, the monster recognized its hideousness upon the surface of my steel and recoiled. I struck at her. The blade lodged into hard flesh and cold blood oozed against my bosom. Her anguished screams would have torn the sanity from any man, yet I blotted all but my aim, and realizing I had yet to cut through bone, struck again and freed my love.
As the monster fell away, something rolled over my feet, and I dared to look, seeing braids where there had been serpents. With Midiana’s head removed, the goddess’ curse was lifted. She looked peaceful, asleep in death. I cradled her head, washing her brow in tears, and with every kiss upon those rose red lips, my heart throbbed as if to burst.
Too brief a time was given me. Her face was turning pale and cold, her beauty restored only to wilt. Like a knife in the sternum, I realized what I had paid for my obsession. Of this life which I so detested, I loved but two things, Valis and Midiana . . .
The world was now empty and I wished for nothing but to bring my sword to my throat, to join my friend and my lover. But I had more evil to do. Lifting my sword from the multicolored tile, I made for that scowling idol. Sparks rained down from the goddess’ marble heel as I attacked it, over and over, as though the tower of stone could die.
My hatred was spent upon Maki until my arms gave out, but it was their woeful gasps that made me surrender.
“Enough!”
The High Priestess of Zoë, my tutor of the Aean language, was watching me. Every priestess, from every temple, was with her. “You have done enough harm,” she said. “Leave now. Men are forbidden here.”
Something monstrous stirred in me, at the reverence for that evil deity, at the lack of bereavement for their fallen sister. And then many things happened at once. I turned to the idol and they moved against me. When the blood cooled and I came again to my senses, three women lay at my feet, a crimson color spreading across their pure white garments. One of them had been my lover in the Temple of Irene.
At the sight of the massacre, I awaited their rage, their hatred. I wanted nothing more than to die at their hands. But they did not move against me. Their eyes were full of fear and pity and sorrow, but rage and hatred was not known to them.
“You disrespect this holy place,” the High Priestess said, “you do not accept the Tenets of Maki; and yet, did you not partake in the ceremonies of the flesh?”
I was dumbfounded by the question, and ashamed, and my sword grew heavy at my fingertips.
“You cannot revere one god and blaspheme another. There must be balance between them. In your lands, there is only war and desolation. You came here, envying our prosperity, yet you cannot accept the balance which grants us peace.
“Leave this island now. Leave never to return, never to speak of it to outsiders, for your kind is unworthy of paradise.”
That night, I claimed the bodies of Valis and Midiana, letting their ashes rise to the gods from the pyre I set upon the beach. When dawn broke upon my restless eyes, I commissioned a boat for my departure, and the gods favored me with a strong wind in my sails.
***
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