The Problem of Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nudism frees us from our desires

 

Ages of Aenya: Thelana Meets Horde

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

DarkForest 

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

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

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

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

. . . the giant?

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

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

Calm yourself, Emma. You can think through this.

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

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

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

“It knows we’re here,” Emma murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

 

Horde by Bazarewski

A closer look at Horde, courtesy of Filip Bazarewski

The Problem of the Penis

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

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

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

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

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

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Too big for battle?

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

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You can just feel the creepiness!

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

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

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Letting it hang out

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Ages of Aenya: Thelana and the Serpent’s Eye

SerpentsEye

Thelana explores an ancient Septheran ruin

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

“By the gods!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golems.

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

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

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

Thoom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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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

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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

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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

 

 

 

Ages of Aenya: Thelana Leaves Home

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‘Thelana Leaves Home’ by Nicholas Cannan.

Somewhere in the dense fauna her younger siblings were busy at being children. Heimdl and Lodr and Baldr, Anja, Brittania and Nicola—all of them dodging chores for games of tag and hide and seek, running and climbing, tumbling and collecting bugs. Vaino and Laine, who were older, hammered posts to fence in the hens, complaining of life’s various drudgeries, while Aliaa and Amina were turning their feet purple in baskets of mashed blackberries. They would be delighted to know of the meat, even if the rabbit provided only a sliver each. And for a moment, against her heart’s desire, Thelana’s mind turned to her eldest sibling. Borz loved the taste of rabbit. He would have greeted her with a broad grin, tousling her hair. Oh, Borz. A sigh came up from her throat, bringing lumps of pain. Where are you this moment?

From within the root folds of Old Man oak, the house rose up like a fallen seedling. Over the years, Baba and his sons had set a myriad of stones and beams—now mired in moss—though the original post and lintel structure had been erected by a much older generation. Built into the side of the house was a silent water wheel, fed by a stony brook that branched from the Potamis. When the climate edged toward cooler winds, bougainvillea speckled the house in icy pinks as though flicked from a paintbrush.

From where she stood, she could see the sharp shadows cast by the ancient tree, and the house felt strangely forlorn, an odd thing for a dwelling of fourteen. Memories beckoned at the gates of her consciousness, but they frightened her, and she pressed on. Remembering her mother’s oft-repeated reproach, she scraped the dirt and blades of grass sticking to her soles and pushed against the door. Its hinges creaked, a noise usually lost amid the bustle of work and play. Nicola was at Mother’s side, a silhouette of braid and buttocks and jutting spine. She was weeping because a spur had embedded itself in her toe. Thelana frowned—how did Nicola expect to survive, being so weak? Hesitantly, Nicola pulled away from Mother’s hair, which was thick with gold braids and flowers and was sometimes all encompassing and could heal bruises of the heart. Mother hushed her younger daughter with a kiss and shooed her from the house, and as the girl moved away, Thelana noticed Baba. They were seated beside one another, Mother and Baba, neither working, which was unusual, for it was midday, and at once Thelana feared them ill.

Whenever Baba was unsettled, he would ring his great hands, as if feelings could be scrubbed off like dirt. When Borz went away, he shed no tears, but there had been much hand scrubbing.

Now he sat still, his hands resting on the table, tightly intertwined.

Thelana slid her bow and quiver against the door, as if slowing her movements could hinder the passage of time. The rabbit carcass, which had carried her home with such swiftness, lay forgotten.

“Baba?” she whispered. “What is it? Has something happened?”

“No, Thelana,” he said. “No.” Mother sat quietly, dressed in strands of gold hair and petals, with moons and stars of henna about her nipples. Even after twelve children, her body retained its vigor. When Thelana thought of the Mother Goddess, no other came to mind but her own mother. But now, beneath that stoic face, Thelana saw something fragile flickering.

“I brought a rabbit,” said Thelana, but the words did not sound right—she’d stressed the wrong syllables.

“We can see, Thelana,” said her father, clearing his throat. “Sit down. You must be tired.”

Sit down? You must be tired? Her father didn’t say things like that. “No, I can stand. I’m strong, Baba.”

“Of course,” he said. “We know you are.” He attempted a smile.

“Is this about Borz?” she asked.

He glanced suddenly to Mother, taking up her hand. She looked strangely detached. Her eyes met his, focusing on him only after a time and lacking consolation. “Not about Borz,” he said, but it was a half-truth and Thelana knew it.

“You’re going to sell me?” Thelana heard herself say.

“No,” Mother objected, a bit too loudly, “it’s not like that. We made a mistake with your brother.”

“You are different,” her father said, the words flowing more easily and deliberately. “You are special, like the spirit of the wind. No one place should keep you.”

“Like the spirit of the wind?” Thelana echoed. “What does that even mean—?”

“You can no longer stay with us,” she heard him say.

This was supposed to be a special day. Mana and Baba were to shower her with praise, spend the day skinning her catch, boiling water to cook the meat. It was not supposed to be like this. “Baba?” she implored. “Mana?” Thelana searched her mother’s eyes. They were hazel, sometimes gold. “You’re sending me away?”

Father stood and went to her, took her up by the shoulders. How many times had he embraced her so? How many times had he lifted her onto his back or tossed her into the air? “Try to understand. You are not meant to be here—your abilities—the gods have shown us you were meant for greater things. You must go out into the world and do great things.”

Thelana was unable to think, unable to digest the words and come to rational thought. She was there with Baba, and then Mother began to sob.

“If this is about food,” she started—food was a thing she could understand at least—“I can hunt more, eat less. I can, I can . . .” she stammered.

“No,” he whispered at last with a sudden hard edge, his face grown still, impassive. “I have made my decision. It’ll do no good to beg. Now be strong, my child. Just as Ilmarinen becomes harsh where the world encroaches—so you must be strong to survive, and shed no tears, nor think on us any longer. Do you understand?”

She took in a deep breath—she could be strong. She’d show him. “When do I leave?”

“Now,” he answered her.

“No!” her mother’s voice rang out, laden with hysteria. “How can you be so callous? Let her stay a little while—”

Baba scolded her with a glance. “Bryseis,” he said, “we’ve been through this. We’ve kept this from her for a reason. If the children were to know, it’d make difficulties.”

“Wait.” Thelana interrupted him, quivering. “I can’t say goodbye?”

There was no answer, though she heard her father’s voice. “Bryseis, get her things.”

“But how will she live?” her mother argued. “You said it yourself—the world beyond is cruel. And she’s only a child!”

“Silence yourself, woman!” he cried. “The girl’s as strong as she’ll ever be. Nothing will happen to her.”

“Don’t you dare say that!” she contested, throwing her arms up, half in frustration, half in prayer. “You’ll give her the bad eye talking like that! You’ll bring the gods’ envy down upon her. Go knock on wood.”

He rolled his eyes and then, thinking better on it, found the lintel of the door to rap his knuckles against it. “There. Now will you go get her things?”

Mother stood mechanically, gathering items into a blanket: a gourd with a cork stopper, an assortment of breads and berries, flint stones for lighting fires, a small paring knife. Her hands shook so violently that her fingers fumbled to knot the four corners. Thelana was quick at her side, adding her fingers to the task.

“Now you remember to keep yourself clean,” her mother said as though reciting a verse from the songs, “. . . and making a fire, you know how to do that?”

“Of course, Mana.”

“I think that’s everything you’ll need. I pray the gods I not forget anything. I even made extra pasteli. It’s still your favorite, isn’t it?”

Thelana nodded. Her earliest memories included the chewy mix of sesame seeds and honey. She remembered how her mother used it to soothe her childhood sorrows. Now she was being sent out, like a grown woman, but was she so different from that child?

“Good,” said Bryseis. “Remember to eat it sparingly, as it won’t spoil.” She continued to ramble nervously as her fingers twitched, though the supplies were all packed for the journey. After fastening the bindle to her bow, her mother left the room to return with a long piece of fabric, yellow with patches of brown.

“What is that for, Mana?”

“Something I nearly forgot . . . and I spent weeks at it! Well, it’s the best I could do.”

“It’s a goat,” said Thelana, her stomach turning sour. Goats were saved for milk, never for slaughter. Hides stored foodstuffs or were used to make tents. By the pattern of spots, she recognized the young kid. It had been no taller than her kneecaps. She remembered its gentle nature, the way its tongue tickled the straw from her fingers. Now its dead skin was being prepared to cover hers.

Her mother worked up a weak smile, stretching and turning the fabric this way and that. “You remember the soldiers who sought shelter from us? How they were covered?” Spread to its full length, the goatskin tunic dwarfed Thelana’s slim frame. With a small knife, Mother cut and rearranged it, imagining how it might go.

“I don’t need that,” said Thelana. “I shall stay as I am, an Ilmarin, no matter where I go.”

“That may be,” her father answered, “but Alashiya, who protects us, is weak where other gods are strong. In the West, men burn under the sun of Solos, and in the East, cold winds blow from the trumpet of Strom. In other parts of the world, you will learn, clothing protects man from these cruelties.”

Baba came nearer, embracing her. “But even where the gods are kind, you must be wary of men, for men can be worse than any gods. In the lands far from home, men do not thrive as part of Aenya, but apart from it, seeking to possess every little thing within it. Lust for possession drives men of the outside, causing every evil and misery. If a man should lay eyes upon you, it may drive him to madness, and he will then seek to possess you. From this you must hide yourself, your body.”

“I don’t understand,” said Thelana.

“Trust in our wisdom!” her father said forcefully. “We learned much of the world when the soldiers came. Do you remember how they looked at us, at you? If you reveal yourself, at the very least, they will shun you. Hidden by clothing, they will not know you are Ilmar.”

Bryseis pressed her daughter to her bosom, just as Thelana appeared to founder with realization. “You will always be Ilmarin within your heart,” she added, “and no one can take that from you.”

“Never,” Thelana murmured. “I’d never forget you.” She grimaced as her mother worked the stiff tunic over her head and down past her knees. But it was a small discomfort amid the uncertainty churning inside of her.

“Where will I go, Baba? What will I do?”

“Follow the river,” he said. “Continue until the hills of Ukko become faint, and the ilms sparse. Do you still remember the speech the foreigners taught you?”

Captain Aola. She was the only one kind to me, teaching me the bow, the language of Kratos. Thelana nodded slowly.

“Seek them out, anyone who speaks the same language. Show them what you can do. A skilled bowman has great value in the outside. But do not show fear, or be overly trustful, or let them cow you into service. Promise me never to suffer your brother’s fate. And promise one more thing—do not permit yourself to starve. Do what needs be. Understand?”

With a will not her own, Thelana pushed the door open. The tunic, her quiver and bow, and a sack sat heavily upon her. The rabbit lay forgotten in a heap of fur and blood. As the door shut behind her, she slumped onto the porch with great sobs. Faces fluttered in her mind and her heart drained into her stomach. “Why can’t I say goodbye!” she cried. Her shoulder fell against the door and it gave with a groan, but her father stood on the opposite side.

Thelana slapped at the door as her father wrestled to shut her out and keep Bryseis away, who sobbed and pleaded for her daughter. “Don’t make this harder on your mother!” he shouted. But there was no cruelty in his voice. “Go, child!”

Time lapsed strangely, and when exhaustion set in, her heart toughened and became proud again. She became still, surrendering her struggle to reenter her childhood home.

“I cannot send you away,” Baba finally said, his voice muted by the door. He sounded broken, defeated. Finally, he stepped outside, and took Thelana in his arms.

“No,” she said softly. “I must go. I’ll come back. I’ll find gold and jewels, like the men of Kratos had, and there will be food for us always.”

“That’s my brave girl,” he said, stroking her hair as he had when she was a small child. “That’s my Thelana.”

Her mother remained in the house as her father escorted her to the edge of the porch. At the foot of the steps, an ilm grew from between the floorboards. How many times had her mother made tea from it, for a broken bone, for Vaino or Laine, or even that one time when Lodr attempted to chase Thelana up Old Man’s branches? The memory made Thelana smile. Her eyes brimmed with hot tears, the kind that sting—she would never again laugh with her brothers.

“Even here,” her father began, thumbing the orange petals, “they grow rarer.” With a twist he broke the flower from its stem. The orange blossom filled her cupped hands. “Remember: we are children of the ilm. As long as you keep it close to your heart, this land will never be far behind.” The delicate petals trembled, and she forced herself to nod.

Where does Thelana go? Does she ever return to find her family? Get the whole story here!