THE AENYA BESTIARY: AVIAN

 

Avian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

THE AENYA BESTIARY: ILMAR

The Ilmar (plural) or Ilmarin (singular, descriptive) go by many names: savages, barbarians, wild humans. Given their propensity for nakedness, and for living in the wild, they are viewed by most civilized people as more animal than human. This view is perpetuated by the little that is known of their culture. Ilmar are often forced into wars and labor camps, or, ostracized by society, become beggars and prostitutes. Believed to be sexually promiscuous, Ilmarin women are often raped or taken as sex slaves. A lucky few become wives, adopting local customs, while keeping their heritage secret.

PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES:
Isolated for millennia between rugged hills, mountains, and sub-tropical / temperate forests, where food is often scarce, the Ilmar have developed lean, muscular physiques. Once subsumed into other cultures, however, they can be difficult to distinguish from other humans, aside from a coppery complexion and light-colored, translucent eyes. While their homeland is known for its ideal climate, Ilmar tend to be more resistant to temperature changes, and to physical hazards like brambles, thorns and rocks. Unfamiliar with shoes, the soles of their feet can be as tough as leather. Beyond the most extreme conditions, Ilmar find most fabrics unbearable, which may be ascribed to a hyper-sensitive sense of touch.

HISTORY:
For some natural philosophers, Ilmar are not human, but an early ancestor. While this view is heavily contested, it is true that they harken to the days of the proto-human, when technology was limited to building fires and to using simple tools of wood and stone. According to an inscription found within a Septheran ruin, the earliest word for human was ‘ilma,’ which the Ilmar use to denote their species, as they do not identify themselves as a separate social group.

For one hundred thousand to one million years, the proto-human lived peaceably, subsisting off hunting and gathering and basic agriculture. It can be said that, during this epoch, the whole of the human species lived as the Ilmar do. With the arrival of the Septhera c. 10,000 BGM (Before the Greater Moon) came the beginnings of a new age. Finding the dominant surface-dwelling species defenseless, the reptilian invaders conquered the planet with ease, enslaving all of humanity, save for a small population hidden between the Ukko Mountains and the Wildwood. There, the proto-human continued to thrive, oblivious to the changes occurring beyond his borders. It was not until 5 BGM that the people of the Ukko river valley were discovered by a Zo researcher named Kjus, who became so enamored by their simple way of life, that he abandoned his own society to become one of them. He named the people ‘Ilmar,’ based on his anthropological studies, and the land ‘Ilmarinen’ after them, and the flower of orange and violet that grew in abundance there the ‘ilm.’ For the remainder of his life, Kjus proceeded to teach the Ilmar of science, history, philosophy and medicine, but made certain not to pollute their culture with the excesses of his own civilization. To protect the knowledge of the Zo, he built a monastery high in the mountains, and before his death, founded the Order of Alashiya, known also as the Keepers.

The Ilmar by Mensink

For the Ilmar, clothing is unnatural.

CULTURE AND SOCIETY:
Knowing nothing of war, crime, or government, the Ilmar live a simple agrarian life. Since everything in the community is shared, they have no concept of currency or property. As is said of the Ilmar, “No man is poor who wants for nothing.” Much of their day is spent farming and gathering, but they will hunt during a famine. In their leisure time, they enjoy singing, dancing, and telling stories. Their myth and history is recorded in verse, and passed down though generations. The holiest time of year is the Solstice, the longest night, when families gather from across the land to celebrate life, love and creation. It is during this time that young men and women, showing hair about the loins, pair off and jump the sacred bonfire, after which the pair is forever joined. It is believed that, during this ceremony, souls of lovers from past lives find one another again. Contrary to what many believe, the Ilmar do not engage in orgies, nor fornicate wantonly, but only with those with whom they are joined. When Solstice Night ends, it is expected that the female move into the male’s household, and by the following year, that she bear a child. Bringing new life into the world is the highest honor, and for this reason, mothers are afforded greater status than fathers, as it is from the womb of the mother that life originates.

The Ilmar lack many technologies, but are skilled wood-smiths and clay workers. Their artifacts include elaborately carved farming tools, throwing spears, atlatls, and pottery. They also excel in the shaping of trees to produce living homes. Camphor and oak are hollowed to make bedrooms, though most activities, including cooking, eating, and grooming, is practiced outdoors. As they are without any concept of crime, the Ilmar do not have doors, though partitions include curtains of bead or bone.

LANGUAGE AND CUSTOM:
For the Ilmar, personal identity extends far beyond the physical body, to encompass the inner being—or spirit—family, friends, other living creatures and even their environment. Anything one touches, or affects through his or her actions, becomes part of what it means to exist, and therefore, to be Ilmarin. Consequently, concepts of shame are incomprehensible. Clothing is entirely unknown to them, and so there is no word in their language for nude or naked. They also lack terms for secret, lie (deception), or even honesty. During their menstrual cycles, women camp by the river, where their blood is offered to the gods. The Ilmar are not, however, without a sense of individuality, and will decorate their bodies with flowers, bones, semi-precious stones like jade and lapis lazuli, and with elaborate mud patterns. Neither sex cuts its hair. Women wear a single braid, which can grow to their ankles, while the men wear locks down the middle of the back, either loose or in multiple braids.

To foreign ears, the Ilmarin language sounds hard and clipped, as they will use conjoined consonances. Common names include Xandr, Baldr, Heimdl, and Borz. Female names typically avoid the conjoined consonant, ending in ‘a’. Examples are Thelana, Aliaa and Anja.

RELIGION:
For the Ilmar, all life is sacred, from the smallest insect to the greatest camphor tree. They make no distinction between human or sentient life and animal or non-sentient (plant) life. All are part of a singular essence known as the Mother Goddess, or Alashiya. The goddess is thought to exist in all things, even non-living matter, in the wind, in sunlight and in the earth. Alashiya is never seen or heard, but can be sensed through the skin.

According to myth, the Goddess was born of two elder gods, Anu and Eru. At the beginning of time, these primordial deities danced through the astral void, singing to one another while making love continually, birthing new worlds in the process. After Aenya was created, the elder gods moved on.

The Ilmar do not consider dreams separate from reality. Each and every dream is a literal experience. By grinding the ilm flower into a fine powder and drinking it, ritual leaders embark upon purposeful dream journeys. In this way, it is believed, they can traverse time and space, other dimensions, and realms beyond death.

In death, the Ilmar become one with Alashiya, as they were before birth. The body is marked by a cairn close to home, typically under a tree, which is absorbed into the soil to become new life. Due to limited nutrition and a lack of medicine, the average lifespan for an Ilmarin is sixty years.

Character Bio: Demacharon

Battleground-Demacharon

Art by David Pasco

Like all eight year old boys of Hedonian citizenry, Demacharon is taken from his mother’s arms to train in the navy, and for the next ten years he is taught discipline, and ways in which to kill more efficiently. He later moves up in rank, from a lowly oarsman to captain of his own vessel. After a number of decisive naval victories against rebelling coastal city states, Demacharon is promoted to Regent Commander of the North, at which point he is charged with the subjugation of tribal lands in the northwest. After two decades campaigning, Demacharon is permitted to take a wife, a chambermaid named Niobe. The honeymoon is short lived, however, as he is sent out again and again, either to defend a border, quell a rebellion, or expand the territories. Never in all that time does he question the rightness of his duties, for he has been taught since childhood that the glory of the empire is an absolute good, and the superiority of their way of life is to be defended at any cost. And yet, far from the One Sea, in the wild, unmapped territories, his legions meet with increased resistance. Many barbarian peoples choose death to paying tribute, fighting to the last man, woman and child. The terrible cost of victory will haunt him for the remainder of his days. Despite heavy losses, his men are unwavering in their loyalty. This may be attributed to his courage on the vanguard, and that he never accepts any comforts that the lowest in rank do not also receive. Once, as throats run dry crossing through the Great White Flat, Demacharon is forced by his men to drink at the point of a spear.

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Standard of the Hedonian navy

Less than half his men, a mere nine thousand of the thirty sent out, return to Hedonia after a year-long campaign to circumnavigate the globe. Half are buried along the road, having succumbed to infection, disease and hunger. In the city, however, Demacharon is heralded a hero, given a parade, lands and titles, including that of Supreme Commander. Only one man, the High Priest Urukjinn, stands above him. But the ghosts of his friends and enemies continue to haunt his dreams, and with the birth of his only child, Astor, he begins to doubt. Does he desire such a life for his son? And how can he justify the murder of barbarian children, knowing what it means to be a father? Soon after his return, five-year old Astor is killed on the beach by merquid, after which his wife, Niobe, recedes into herself, overcome by despair. Having lost the only two things that mean anything to him, Demacharon becomes disillusioned, a broken man in search of redemption.

astor_s_cairn_by_david_pasco_by_ageofaenya-d9bl39b1

Art by David Pasco

Appearances: Ages of Aenya, The Princess of Aenya

Biographies

RadiaRadia is the 54th descendant of the Zo and heir to the throne of Aenya. She is known for her stunning beauty and mismatched eyes, one of turquoise like the greater moon, the other violet, like the lesser. At age eleven, she succumbs to a mysterious illness. Her father, King Solon, offers his kingdom for her life, but the only man who can cure her, a stranger named, Anabis, asks only for lodging in the palace, and that the king adopt his son, Zaibos. At fifteen, her step-brother seizes the throne, and Radia is forced to flee for her life. Searching for safe haven alongside her Hedonian protector, she learns she is able to feel the emotions of every living thing, that she can make flowers bloom when she sings and rain fall when she weeps. To learn more: The Princess of Aenya. Artwork by Selene Regener.

 

Battleground-DemacharonAfter a number of decisive naval victories, Demacharon is promoted to Regent Commander of the North, at which point he is charged with the subjugation of the people who do not yet pay tribute to the empire. Never does he question his duties, though his legions meet with increased resistance. Less than half his men, a mere nine thousand, return to Hedonia after his final campaign into the western wildlands. Demacharon is heralded a hero, but the ghosts of his friends haunt his dreams, and with the birth of his child, Astor, he begins to doubt. How can he justify the murder of barbarian children, knowing what it means to be a father? Soon after his return, his five-year old son is killed on the beach by merquid. Having lost the only thing that matters to him, Demacharon becomes a broken man in search of redemption. Read the complete bio: DEMACHARON. Artwork by David Pasco.

 

Zaibos Facing You

His monstrous appearance throws adversaries into a panic, and his infamous cruelty fuels the myth that he is a demon. No wonder he, born human, comes to be known as the Monster King and the Lord of Agonies. With the full bent of the army behind him, Zaibos usurps the throne of Tyrnael, and Radia is forced to flee for her life. The days following her flight are marked with despair and dread the likes the kingdom has never seen, as torture and executions become commonplace, and Zaibos’ true, sadistic nature is revealed to all. Read the complete bio: ZAIBOS. Artwork by David Pasco.

 

Nessus2Anabis is a scholar of humble beginnings, who desires nothing more than to learn of the Zo. The more he studies, however, the more he is intrigued by the possibility of immortality. His research leads him to Tyrnael, ancient capital of Aenya. When Solon’s young daughter, Radia, becomes deathly ill, he promises to cure her. He asks not for riches or titles, but to remain as an adviser. Not long after, Anabis extracts the essence of unicorn blood, hoping to become immortal, but is transformed into a monstrosity, and in this new body, he adopts a new name. Nessus. Read the complete bio: NESSUS. Artwork by  David Pasco.

 

grumblestump_by_david_pasco_by_ageofaenya-d8siczqGrumblestump is born into the warrior caste. Named Grumblor by his mother, who dies soon after giving birth, Grumblestump joins the annual bogren raids against Northendell. With Captain Sif leading the vanguard, the Knights of Northendell quickly route the attackers, but Grumblor refuses to flee. Believing he is destined for greatness, he fights his way to the outer wall, where he meets Duncan Greyoak. The inexperienced bogren is no match for the man-at-arms, however, and Grumblor loses his hand at the wrist, which he crudely replaces with a single spike. He is called “Grumble-stump” ever since, and as a crippled warrior, is consigned to live in the mines among the digger caste as a foreman. Read the complete bio: GRUMBLESTUMP. Artwork by David Pasco.

 

hordewebAfter untold eons adrift in the body of a golem, alone save for the one hundred and twenty voices in its head, the Zo lose their sense of individuality and go insane, calling themselves Horde. Ten thousand years from their exodus, Horde returns home. Encased in ice, the golem crashes onto the surface like a fiery meteor, cratering the ground and obliterating the land about Kiathos. But what it finds is a very different world from the one it abandoned, a primitive world with two moons and one sea, where science has become magic and the Zo are long forgotten. Read the complete bio: HORDE. Artwork by Filip Bazarewski.

 

 

 

thelana_2015_by_alexey_lipatov_by_ageofaenya-d8ait4h

After returning from war, Thelana finds her home in Ilmarinen an abandoned ruin. With no food and no family, she seeks survival in Hedonia, stealing when she can. Wanting more than to live in the slums as a vagabond, she is eventually driven to climb into the Temple of Sargonus, where she is caught prying the pearl eyes from the idol of the Sea God. Now, in a cold dark recess beneath the city, she waits for hunger and for death. Read the complete bio: THELANA. Artwork by Alexey Lipatov.

 

xandrvsnakeman

The people know him as a savage, a wild man, a recluse. But when Xandr is summoned from the Marsh of Melancholy to the imperial capital of Hedonia, he discovers there is more to his life than he could have imagined. For thousands of years, the high priests have awaited him, for the one they call Batal. All the while, a portent of doom hangs over the city, as merquid creep upon the shore to murder the innocent. Read the complete bio: XANDR. Artwork by Alexey Lipatov.

 

EmmaWebEmma is a child vagabond, wandering the narrow avenues of Northendell, her oversized robes gathering the grime from the streets. Her only friends are ravens, and still she will be caught talking to herself. Of her mother, she has only a name, Ilsa, and an heirloom, a piccolo found in a wooden box. To Mathias, her father, she might as well be dead. Day and night, he labors in his study, obsessing over some secret he will not divulge. Growing into womanhood, her awkwardness brings undue attention, and Emma, accused of witchcraft, becomes an outcast from the only place she knows as home. Read the complete bio: EMMA. Artwork courtesy of Alexey Lipatov

 

 

efe73-grimmbybaxGrimosse is a construct of dead flesh brought to life by the lost arts of the Zo. Though he maintains no allegiance to Hedonia, he wears the gold and crimson of a legionnaire. An immense hammer, weighing several times that of a man, is uniquely suited to his strength. From whence he comes, nobody knows. He is discovered wandering the northern plains, but nothing subdues the monster’s rage but the pleas of the High Priest’s daughter, Merneptes, when her caravan is overcome during a revolt. The golem follows her dutifully for years until her suicide, when the city is overcome by merquid. Read the complete bio: GRIMOSSE. Artwork by Julia Bax

 

The Princess of Aenya Query Letter #1

radia_s_awakening_by_selene_regener_by_ageofaenya-d9d91bp

Dear Editor,

The Princess of Aenya is a fantasy adventure reminiscent of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story, with a little bit of Song of Ice and Fire injected for good measure. It stands roughly at 125,000 words.

What’s the story? 

She is known for her arresting beauty and mismatched eyes. One is turquoise, like the greater moon, the other is violet, like the lesser. But at fifteen years, the heir of Tyrnael is innocent to life’s cruelties. After her father’s death, her quixotic outlook clashes with that of her step-brother, Zaibos, upon which he seizes the throne and she is forced to flee for her life. Her only protector is a stranger from a fallen empire, Demacharon, a soldier tormented by visions of the afterlife, by those he has lost and those he has wronged. And yet, unbeknownst even to herself, Radia carries an awesome secret. For she is far more than an innocent girl, and if she were to die, so too would the world itself. 

Why invest in me?

You will never meet anyone more passionate about storytelling, and I am prepared to do what is necessary to market and promote my work. This is an opportunity to invest not only in the Aenya series, but in a great writer as well.

My Life

At age six, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and that was to engage people with my fiction. By age nine, I had the temerity to solicit my superhero series to DC Comics Headquarters in New York City. At fourteen, I queried my first novel to publishers. I later attended the University of South Florida, where I earned my BA in English, tutored students, and worked as a freelance editor. I continue to write essays, reviews and short fiction at writersdisease.net.

My world . . .

For book excerpts, artwork, poetry and short fiction; or to learn about the characters, geography and history of Aenya, please be sure to visit Aenya.net!

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Nick Alimonos
alimonosbooks@gmail.com

 

Character Bios: NESSUS

Perhaps the most enigmatic character in all of Aenya is the one who calls himself Nessus, the Dark Centaur, the Plunderer, and Ravager of Worlds, among other things. With armies of bogren and horg at his beck and call, settlements along the eastern border are razed, including the homes of the Ilmar. Against those intrepid enough to face him, Nessus is said to wield twin obsidian sabers. He is also master of the forbidden arts of the Zo, what in Northendell is referred to as witchcraft. With merely a thought, Nessus can stop a man’s heart, or control a body like a marionette. Only one is known to have challenged Nessus and survived. In the annals of Aenya lore, The Dark Age of Enya, an Ilmarin boy faces against the centaur along the riverbanks of the Potamis. Their duel is short. Cleaving the young man’s torso from hip to shoulder, Nessus leaves the boy for dead. But he does not die, for the Goddess, in the form of the phoenix, takes pity on him.

Few can say where Nessus comes from, nor speak of his purpose, if there is any beyond a love for misery and destruction. As only a handful of men have seen him, the centaur is largely thought to be a legend. Given the unnatural pairing of man and horse, natural philosophers suggest such a creature is an impossibility. Surely, witnesses mistake a frightful warrior on horseback for a monster, for wherever fear is at work, nightmares will follow.

It is not until the Coup of Tyrnael and the reign of Zaibos, as recorded in The Princess of Aenya, that some light is shed upon the mystery of Nessus.

Anabis is a scholar of humble beginnings, who desires nothing more than to learn of the Zo. The more he studies, however, the more he is intrigued by the possibility of immortality, something the Zo are said to have mastered. His research leads him to Tyrnael, ancient capital of Aenya, hidden in the Crown of Aenya Mountains. There, he bides his time, hoping to gain access to the Compass Tower, the ancient seat of the Zo governing body and stronghold of King Solon.

When Solon’s young daughter, Radia, becomes deathly ill, Anabis promises to cure her, but for a price. He asks not for riches or titles, but to remain as an adviser. Not long after, Anabis discovers many secrets hidden in chambers that have been lost for generations, but eternal life eludes him. It is not until he visits the royal stables that a clue presents itself. The unicorn is an otherworldly being, imprisoned by the king’s ancestors ages ago, and does not appear to age. Having studied the ancient books, he learns of “life essences,” maps upon which all living things are patterned. It is what the Zo used to create new forms of plants and animals. Extracting the essence from the unicorn’s blood, Anabis hopes to become like it, immortal. But his reading of the text is limited, and lacking complete understanding, he fails to isolate the property of eternal life, and is transformed into something more. Henceforth, he possesses two hearts, two pairs of lungs, and two stomachs. He becomes what nature could never have devised on her own, a monstrosity, and in this new body, he adopts a new name.

Nessus.

Knowing that the king would not abide his actions, Nessus fakes his own death, with the aid of his son, Zaibos. Rather than flee from the Tower, he hides in its lower depths, to further continue his research. It is not long after that his lust for immortality turns to something even greater. He discovers The Star Chamber, and at its center, the Fantastigate: Hub of All Worlds. The gate permits the user, like the Zo, to traverse time and space, to reach any world in any and all possible universes. But the key is missing. Despite years of searching, no means of opening the gate is found, and Nessus is forced to look beyond the borders of Tyrnael, to plunder settlements near and far in a mad zeal to uncover it.


Author’s notes:

First and foremost, I’d like to thank my excellent friend, David Pasco, for this amazing custom.

Secondly, I’d like to point out that Nessus was prominently featured in The Dark Age of Enya in 2004, and also in the rewrite, Ages of Aenya, but his story needed to be cut. It was the most painful edit I’ve ever had to make, but it helped to streamline an already convoluted plot. Fortunately, Nessus makes a return in The Princess of Aenya.

In the deleted scene belowa young Xandr squares off against the Dark Centaur. Enjoy!


 

The centaur loomed heads over the youth, coming down with animal fury to sever his brash opponent from both the left and right shoulders. But Emmaxis moved with improbable swiftness in Xandr’s hands, joining the twin blades as Nessus met his own scowling countenance upon its mirrored surface.

Stepping away, the young monk drew the centaur into a wider circle, just as QuasiI had taught him, till Xandr’s heel touched upon dry soil, on the north side of the river, leaving the other’s hooves to splash in the current. The boy danced in dizzying loops, sprang and rebounded, lurched with deadly accuracy. Feet skirted sideways, tendons stretched low imitating the killing motions of the horned beetle. He could not manage to swing the sword around him swiftly enough, but rather appeared left of it, right of it.

“You are powerful . . . for a child,” the low voice rumbled. “Unfortunate that you were not born to us!”

The centaur was heavier than a warhorse, with limited lateral movement, made more so by the river coursing about him. The fact did not go unnoticed and Xandr acted to outflank his foe, to sink his metal into broad horse flesh.

Between man and monster, intersections formed and reformed with violent suddenness, tossing embers as their weapons came together. An exhaustive array of thrusts, parries and near misses showcased a plethora of arts, including the delayed counter, which was intended to lure Nessus into an overreaching attack. But reversals gave way to counter-reversals, and soon Xandr succumbed to thought, in how to compensate for the extra weight and length of his blade. Reach and force were its advantages, but whether the sword possessed any fantastic qualities, he could not tell; there was but the eerie, life-like quiver of its alloy and the constant drone in his head to kill, kill, and kill—if not Nessus—something.

Every fiber of the young nude’s muscle throbbed in defense. For though the centaur proved less agile, it offered no more advantage to Xandr than if he were fighting a windmill. Nessus possessed monstrous power, using hoof as elegantly as saber, fighting with a battle-hardened lack of pretense the youth could never counter. Each deflected blow weakened the pubescent warrior’s resolve, and it was not long before the two-handed sword chaffed in his palms and tugged at his spine.

With his hatred spent, Xandr’s grip loosened, and Nessus sent the sword spinning away. In falling, Emmaxis sank deep into a boulder at the river’s edge. Rebounding from the impact, the first of the centaur’s sabers flew back as the second cut diagonally, from hip to collarbone. Xandr’s torso peeled open. Blood pooled between his toes.

Hooves clomping through dirt and clay, the Dark Centaur began to pace the river. “What know you of Aenya in this paradise?” Between his outstretched fingers a sphere erupted, a ruptured surface of arid reds and cobalt. “You know nothing of hunger, of those who hunger . . . You do not even know the true wealth of this land. But wait . . . do you feel it?” he said, studying the air as if a change was taking place, “a chill wind blows from the East. Soon, your people shall know what we have known for millennia. Aenya turns slowly . . . but it does turn . . . and as the world changes so does the land, so will your lands be as ours, so does the light become the dark. Alas, when the darkening comes, that which we seek shall be no more.”

The red bearded face, and the gleaming black blades, and the rushing of the Potamis, it all became distant and unfocused, and Xandr wet his fingers into the fresh cavity in his breast, lifting the blood to his eyes. Each breath stabbed at him, a terrible reminder of life, and he felt himself plummet and the ground wheel about him.

“I could have killed you at any instant. But I am a connoisseur of torment, and I find it more satisfying to first crush the spirit. Idealism is, after all, so nauseating.”

Closing his fist, the projection of Aenya extinguished like a candle-flame, and his attention turned to the sword. “ . . . I have never seen its equal—a sword that cuts through solid rock—and the blade, unscathed, even against my sabers! An old relic, no doubt, from the age of the Zo. Perhaps this little duel was not completely fruitless.”

With all the might of his four legs, the Ravager of Kingdoms could not remove the sword. Emmaxis remained as though moored to the earth and at some length sank further into the stone. “It mocks me!” Nessus grumbled, the skull-face mirroring the convex of his daemonic eyes. “And this hilt, it differs somehow from before . . . What sorcery is this?”

As the blood ebbed from his body, Xandr could do nothing but watch the centaur curse and struggle. In time, the Chariot of Solos crept behind the greater moon, and the sky dulled to sullen shades of violet, and Nessus was no more. All the young monk knew was that the centaur had been and now was not.

Thought and understanding navigated dark regions in his mind. There was no sensation beyond the cold permeating his membranes without the comfort of a shudder. Resolved to this state, he welcomed the Taker’s embrace and the absence of being that lifted all pain.

But it did not come.

Oh Alashiya . . . What glory is in this? Was I not to be Batal? Has my life been a lie?

Moons mingled amid deities and stars drew ellipses in the sky. Leaves curled and twirled off sinewy stems, framing him in earthen colors. Seedlings broke through the soil and ilms pillowed under his limbs. A screech rent the abyss, and looking again toward heaven, he spied upon the great sword once more, its ghoulish face ever grinning, and sitting upon it now was a phoenix with feathers of orange, white, and blue. It was the icon from the mural, resonating with power, gravitating cords of fate and matter about its beak.

Planes and galaxies swirled in the phoenix’s eyes, and as it looked into him, all knowing, the black came down and he was gone.


 

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The Skyclad Warriors

The Ilmar by Mensink


 

Xandr stood at the prow of the Horizon Chaser, watching the waves split apart and close together, his thoughts flowing like the water. They had been traveling for more than a cycle, down the Potamis toward the Sea, and in the confines of the ship, he had been forced into clothing. It was not as though the captain or crew had done anything to threaten him, but he knew their customs, knew they would look upon him with revulsion should he expose his genitals, and he was not one to draw attention to himself. He loathed civilization nearly as much as he adored solitude.

Despite the years he had spent living among outsiders, covering his body had never felt right to him. He was Ilmarin, of the first humans to stand upright, and clothing was as superfluous to his people as it was for any other animal. And that, he knew, is how they saw him. Only for the Ilmar, all humans were animals, and every other species a cousin.

Even now, he could feel the leather kilt girding him, grating him with every step, suffocating the life from his loins. But in their southerly course, the ship had delivered them far from the snows of Northendell, and in waking that morning to the warmth touching his cabin, he had made his decision. With a breath of finality, he tore the kilt from his waist, and offered it to the wind. It flailed in his fist for a moment and was taken, across the sails and down into the river’s depths. Elation followed, a sense of freedom from constraint, and of finding oneself.

As he made his way down the ramp to the middeck, he crossed the captain. She eyed him without a word, stealing furtive glances at his manhood, and continued on. Thelana was sitting at the edge of the guardrail, still in her tunic, where she delighted in the spray of the rapids.

“You know they won’t let you.”

He shared the spot next to her, the wet air filling his lungs. “We can never be. They will never simply let us be.”

“Our customs offend them—you know this. We are few, my lover, and they are many.” She tucked her knees under her chin, rocking with the dip and swell of the ship, until finding herself against him. “When we reach port, they may not give us audience, not if they think us savages, not if we do not look like them . . . dress like them.”

“I know, Thelana. But at least for now, upon the Potamis, I will commune with the Goddess.”

“It is different for you,” she said. “You are fortunate.”

“Why is that?”

“I am a woman. You do not know how they see me, how they look at me. An outsider cannot look at a woman without desiring her.”

He made a sound of disgust. “If anyone touches you, I will tear out his member!”

Sif returned with her first mate. Already there was grumbling. He knew that the crew detested the thought of savages sharing in their food, slumbering in their bunks. But the captain remained adamant.

“But captain, must he go around like that, with all his bits dangling in everyone’s faces? Are we to respect them when they don’t have the decency to act like human beings?”

“It is their custom,” she answered. “Just as what we wear is ours.”

“But he’s naked as a newborn babe, he is!”

“Their bodies are sacred to them,” she said slowly. “To touch the goddess, they cannot be clothed. It is the way of the Ilmar. Respect it, or take your leave below, where your eyes may not find injury.”

He knew that the captain was not fond of the situation, and that, if he had not done what he had in the mountains, if all Aenya was not calling him Batal, she might hold a very different view. The truth about his people’s customs was more hazy than she let on. No doubt he could feel the Goddess’ presence in the wind, in the sun and in the water and in the earth, but had she been absent from him in Northendell, in the cycles living among the Delians, eating and drinking and dressing as they did? The other matter was that of his two-hander, Emmaxis, a weapon not of his kind but of the Zo, which burdened him to such a degree, he was made to visit the city tanner. His new baldric was of iron rivets and worked leather, which fastened around his torso and thigh to distribute the sword’s weight evenly. He was far from freedom while wearing it, but the sword was his burden to bear, and now its weight had been lifted to some degree.

Split between his longing to feel the world around him and the need to conform to society, Xandr fell silent, until Thelana turned to him, saying, “No, you are right. Wherever people gather, anywhere in the world, they are dressed as their custom dictates. Hedonians wear the chiton, Delians the tunic, women from Shemselinihar the niqab. Why should we do otherwise? I mean . . . if we start wearing clothes, we admit that our customs are inferior, and that are people really are savages.”

He eyed her intently. She was particularly beautiful when finding her passion. “Just what are you suggesting?”

“No more clothing,” she declared, pulling her tunic over her head and letting it slip into the water. “If you go without, so will I.”

“And when we reach port? What then?” he asked. “Do we go naked in the bazaars, where thousands gather? In their halls? Before kings and queens?”

“And proudly! If they scoff, let them! If they should deem me a whore, what should it matter to me, who is not one of them? After what we have suffered, in the Dead Zones, upon the Pewter Mountains, words mean nothing. We represent our people, Xandr, and everything the Ilmar stood for! Don’t you see, this is what we have long awaited, because of who you have become and what you have done. Could they truly shun the Batal—call you a savage—after saving their lives and their children’s lives? No, you will address the kings and queens of Aenya in your native habit, and they will rethink their ways, not just how they see us, but all primitive peoples. There may yet be Ilmar in hiding. But should they come to know that the Batal is one of them, they may come out of hiding, and someday return with us to Ilmarinen.”

Xandr measured her words carefully. Nothing had prevented him from discarding his loincloth but shame—the shame impressed upon him by others. For the first fourteen years of his life, he had not known the word naked, or that the people who lived beyond the Mountains of Ukko hid parts of their bodies. How had he honored his people by abandoning their way of life? Thelana’s wisdom was worthy of the keepers. Now was the time to honor their race. He would no longer abide by the customs of civilization, knowing that they mocked him behind their walls. All too painfully, he recalled their jeers and their laughter, from the day he first chanced upon a village, and no doubt he would again endure ridicule and scorn, but the world knew him as Batal now, and if they were to have his sword, they would have his body also. Wherever summoned, from the holiest of shrines to the highest of courts, Xandr and Thelana would answer in the fashion of their people, as Ilmar, clothed in wind and sun and nothing more, so that in time the world would come to know them as the Skyclad Warriors.


 

“Do you ever feel cold?”

Thelana turned to the captain, who she noticed was standing beside her. “I feel it,” she answered at length. “But it does not affect me.”

“If I were you, I’d be shivering. There is a cool front coming in from the East, I believe.”

Captain Sif was fitted in her usual gold cuirass, pouldrons and boots, with a white linen undercoat and a chain skirt, leaving only her face, neck and hands exposed. Thelana, by contrast, could not have been more naked, but for the knot in her braid. Her quiver was in her quarters, along with the dagger sheath she sometimes fastened to her thigh. “Are you not weighed down in all that metal? We are not at battle this moment.”

“No, but it reminds the crew of my place. They must not see me as a companion, but as a superior. Clothing serves many purposes. As a show of authority, for one.”

Part of her envied the captain. The regal accouterments of her station fitted her well, and the patterns etched into her armor and along the trim of her undergarments were elaborately arrayed. But she and Xandr were committed to abstaining from clothing. “It is always a matter of appearances with your kind. My people do not dwell on such things.”

“But have you not noticed how the men stare at you? Do you not consider what they must be imagining?”

“You think me naive, and yet you believe yourself immune to their fantasies. Do not think for a moment that because you are their captain, that they see you as any less of a woman. At least I do not give them power over me, by hiding myself, by cowering in shame.”

“I am not . . .” Sif stammered, “. . . I am not ashamed!”

“Prove it,” Thelana said. “Throw your clothes into the water, here and now.”

“I prefer to keep my dignity.”

“What is dignity, if it can be taken away? Do you not strip your captives bare? Your slaves? If you fall in battle, they will do the same to you, and what then will that armor signify? My dignity cannot be stolen, even in death . . . I surrender it only by submitting to your customs.”

“So, you intend to remain like this when we reach port? Stand naked before the masses? The queen’s court?”

“Why should I not? Besides, I am not naked—that is your word. If we were in Ilmarinen, I would ask whether you intend to keep hiding yourself.”

“But we are not in Ilmarinen. Your homeland is no more, Thelana, and humanity has moved on, has become, well . . . civilized.”

“Is it civilized to shun what is natural? Under all that armor, we are no different, only you choose to hide it. What shame is there in flesh? In being as you were born? What need is there of clothing, truly? It serves no purpose that I can see.”

“I respect your devotion to your people. In a way, it is not so different than the wars we fight, to preserve our identities, our way of life. You fight your own battles, I suppose . . . one that exists in the hearts and minds of men. But, to survive, we must also change. Adapt.”

“You know . . .” Thelana took a long, deep breath, “I remember the first time I saw outsiders, soldiers from Kratos. Many were wounded or dying. We gave them shelter, fed them. At first, I did not understand what I was seeing. Were they ilma, or some other kind of animal? Their captain was a woman—strong like you—but I was not certain she was female. But oh, the colors, the reds and whites and golds! I’d never seen such beauty, but in the flowers that bloom in low moon, and I wanted only to join them. And yet cotton does not grow in Ilmarinen. There are petals, and leaves in abundance, only they are too fragile for clothing. The day I left home, my mother forced me into a frock, a plain, ugly looking thing. I hated the feel of it, but now I realize how it made me see myself. I needed to change to suit the outside world. On that day, I learned that I came from a lesser people, and that I should be ashamed. I joined Kratos, and for two years dressed and acted and lived as they did, telling no one of my heritage. I changed, adapted, and hated myself every single day. My family would never have recognized me, and if they were to have sought me out, I would have denied them. And what did I learn among the civilized races? Colors. Colors beyond my wildest imaginings, and yet, so much red. Blood red. The civilization you take such pride in is built upon murder and slavery. Your castles and high walls were made for it. You wear armor and weapons for war, and carry bright banners for war, but in war there is only suffering and death. In Ilmarinen, we fell a tree and mourn for it. We kill when we are starving, and never without respect. When I returned home to find my family, they were gone, as were my people. I never saw my mother and father in anything but their skin. My sisters and brothers likewise. They perished, and I among them survived, and for what? Colors? To dream that I was not human, but a butterfly?”

“I did not expect this turn of events,” Sif said after a time. “We are headed for Thetis, and I do not know how the people there will react to your . . . custom. Queen Frazetta may not accept you at court. For all we know, we may be lynched.”

“No,” Thelana said, “we must meet with this queen, stand before the high born, prove that we are not savages, that we have a rightful place among the peoples of Aenya.”

“You will need a voice to come before you, someone to represent you to the world. For what you have done for us, I will be this voice. But the people of Thetis are bound by tradition. They will not know you as I do and will not take your story to heart. But I have an idea that may work in your favor . . .”

“Oh?”

“The coastal city states are a stubborn lot, I admit, but prone to rumor and superstition. Already, there is outlandish talk of the Batal. They say he fought and killed Lunestes, the giant that holds up the greater moon. They say he moved the world . . .”

Thelana remembered Emma telling her of the machine, the Hammer of Strom at the mountain’s peak, and the great lever that shook the world. “He did, in a way.”

“Truth does not matter here, only belief. What if we were to feed into this myth? We will proclaim Xandr a god among men, and you will be his goddess. After all, only gods could have done the things they’ve heard about. It’s risky, to be certain. We may be branded blasphemers, but from what I have been told, the queen usurped most power reserved for the temple. She is no fool, and will likely see our ruse for what it is, but the masses may not.”

“I still don’t understand. How does pretending to be gods help us?”

“Gods are not bound by mortal custom. In Thetis, as in Hedonia, the gods make the law. In essence, you and Xandr will stand above their priests and monarchs. Men need clothing and armor, because they are vulnerable. Gods do not.”


 

Thelana watched the coast of Thetis drift into view, the deep green hills of olive trees rolling across her line of sight, as waves dashed whitely against the rocks spraying her nose and cheeks and eyebrows. Beyond the shoreline, blue and white homes marked the cliff face like barnacles along the prow of a great galleon. In other places, the Sea poured inland, forming sandy alcoves, where people might gather, but the beaches were lonely. What were the people of Thetis like? In her travels, Thelana had seen much of Aenya, but while traditions varied from place to place, nowhere among the civilized races could wild humans, like herself, call home.

Aboard the Horizon Chaser, the crew prepared to disembark, gathering cargo, securing ropes and lacing the laces of their most presentable attire, all but she. For she did not own a single garment, or shoe, or anything that might touch her body, beyond her bow, quiver, and a dagger sheath. These were her only possessions. Despite the occasionally leering eyes of her crew mates, she had remained steadfast in her rejection of clothing, until her bare body became as common a sight as the gulls circling the topmast. Now, as the ship made its way to port, she could feel the blood rushing to her head. A few dozen ship-hands she could handle, but a teeming city populace? Women and children and husbands? Merchants and priests and soldiers? She knew nothing of their habits, beliefs, what made them laugh and for what they took offense. Did they make love under the sun? Swim naked in the Sea? Were their children, the young clinging to their mothers’ teats, permitted the freedom of the Ilmar? No doubt men would ogle her. How often had she been told that she was beautiful, only to feel their groping lustful hands? In the outer world, it seemed, men were slaves to their desires, and women were but things to be enjoyed. And yet, even the women, who did not despise her brazenness, seemed to admire her physique. How else could the captain have conceived of such an outlandish plan? Gods were young and muscled, she was told, but for the Ilmar the Goddess was round and voluptuous, with a large bosom for feeding hungry mouths, and broad hips for bearing children.

As the long stone piers, and the many oared ships and fishing dinghies came into view, Thelana grew faint. She tried to remember the stance they had rehearsed, but her stomach was protesting, urging her to wretch over the side. She had not been so afraid since confronting the golem in the mountains. Shame could be a powerful weapon, she realized. The arrows of humiliation can pierce the heart as readily as bronze. Countless pairs of eyes would soon be upon her, to probe and examine her. If this was to work, she needed to show absolute indifference. Indifference was her only defense against their jeers, but she was not a goddess. Surely, their prying eyes would break the facade, for the Ilmar were not a people known for deceit. Perhaps, she thought, a loincloth was not too much to bear. After all, it was the space between the legs that offended, little else. Surely, she could remain true to her people and cover her loins? But no—to the Ilmar—nothing of the body was taboo. Besides, whatever clothing she had owned swam in the depths, where she had sent it days ago fearing a change of heart. There was no way to back out now.

When the heads of the people came into view, the crowds on the pier and along the adjacent ships and from every tower and parapet, her heart fell like a stone. Tall hatted magistrates and mothers suckling babes and bare-chested sailors in long white scarfs, they all came to glimpse heroes, and she retreated, hiding her nakedness behind the rail. But she was not alone. Xandr was beside her, bare as could be, having entrusted even his sword’s new scabbard to the crew. His hand slipped firmly into hers, and in seeing him there, proud and resolute, she realized how false her feelings had been, how ridiculous her shame, for it truly did not matter what the people thought. Accepted or rejected, they would stand together.

Ropes were pulled and anchors dropped, and the ship’s lateen sails cut short. With great skill, the Horizon Chaser turned, sidling against the pier. People rushed to greet the docking vessel, having learned of its precious human cargo. As the gangplank lowered, the sailors moved hastily one by one, on to firm ground. Xandr and Thelana were to be the last, following the captain. Remember who you are, she told herself, closing her eyes to the wind, to the wood planking under her soles. This will only work if you do as Sif suggested. Be more than a woman. A goddess. 

Clenching her every muscle, to become taut and strong as marble, she crossed the gunwale so that the people could drink her in with their eyes. Mortals looked down at people, but she lifted her face heavenward, regarding the masses with only fleeting interest, deflecting their still and horrified stares like a shower of arrows. They did not matter, she convinced herself, because she was not of them, but far beyond, a savior of the world, a divine being, and divine beings did not concern themselves with trifling, mortal things. But would they be convinced of it? She doubted, and when the people saw the Skyclad Warriors and realized who they must be, there was utter silence, and her doubt turned to dread.

Perhaps it was the way in which the Ilmar carried themselves that day, or how they seemed to wear their bare bodies like suits of armor, or the fickle nature that is human custom. Whatever the reason, that silence was followed by a deafening chorus of hooting and clapping. The gods of the Ilmar had arrived and the people of Thetis rejoiced. Thelana could not believe what she was seeing, and overjoyed, became afraid to reveal her mortality by weeping. From that day forth, she could not be made to feel lesser for how she lived. Never again would she walk under the sun in shame. Saviors of the world, she realized, could never be shamed.


 

Xandr followed the guards, hand-in-hand with Thelana. He could feel the moisture budding in her palm, her skin quivering. She would not release him, for his presence, he knew, strengthened her resolve. Shame could possess such power, but such power was an illusion, for it could do nothing to harm them. They had only to suffer their scorn and ridicule, and become pariahs. And yet, despite having lived much of his life in solitude, Xandr could not quell the racing of his heart. Ilmarin or no, he was like a beast removed from its habitat. Hundreds of Thecians gathered about them, soldiers and magistrates and holy men, and families of royal birth, and his body quailed and shrank at the sight of them, his member like an ambling minnow between his thighs. And still he could not be called entirely naked, for he was burdened by his sword, Emmaxis, weighed to his back in its scabbard.

Despite the searing sun, pouring through openings in the walls, the palace interior was cold and lacked of air, and the granite floor, patterned in semi-precious stones, was unforgiving against his soles. Every eye was upon them now, from the queen’s courtesans in their flowing silk and lace, to the magistrates in their ceremonial garb and conical hats, to the guards in their bronze and leather. Many had not gone out to the pier to receive them, and would not have known to expect a naked man and woman entering their chamber.

The little air circulating the room seemed to rush out of it just then, as Xandr and Thelana exposed themselves before their prodding eyes. He awaited their jeers and their laughter, like one armed for battle, but could not defend against judgement. His only recourse was to stand, in as proud and godly a manner as one might manage. But truly, what did he know of Thecians and their gods?

A day prior, having arrived from port, Sif had led them into a bathhouse, where he and Thelana were washed and oiled and meticulously groomed. Their bodies glistened, and their scars masked, and not a follicle was out of place. No sign of human frailty was allowed them. So much trouble for a charade. A lie for a truth.

Surely, it would have been easier simply to have dressed. His scabbard could be altered, with a belt to gird his loins, but Thelana had been adamant that they go naked before the world, so that other primitives in hiding might come forward without shame. Even the captain took increasing interest in the charade. While she did not care to preserve their customs, the idea of a god or gods speaking on behalf of the Delian people did not lack appeal. Even Xandr could recall how the supreme god of the Hedonians—Sargonus—wore no clothing. At least the idol he had seen had not.

Queen Frazetta acknowledged the Delian host, showing only curiosity, as though she were looking upon some extinct species of man. It was a long bearded priest who broke the silence. “Who are these rabble? How come they to this hallowed place with such disregard for custom? Do you mean us insult? Have you no respect for our queen?”

Sif addressed the man before anyone could answer, “Take care how you speak, priest, lest you damn yourself. Citizens of Thetis, we mean no disrespect. As you can see, I, Daughter of King Frizzbeard, Princess of Northendell, stand here in the regal accouterments of my station, as prudence dictates. But I stand here also, humbled before two great divinities.”

“Divinities? What do you mean by this?”

“Have you not heard of the goings-on in Northendell? Of the giant who threatened our world and the gods who cast him down?”

“Gods?” He was about to laugh, but stopped himself to study the two naked bodies again. It appeared there was enough doubt and superstition in him for the captain to twist his mind.

“You think us mad,” she went on, “to bring this man and woman before you, naked as newborns? No . . . do not let your mortal eyes deceive you. Men are frail things, prone to sickness and death and injury, to the cold of high moon, to the heat of the western sun. Men have need of clothing and armor. Gods do not.”

“Jafenji, could this be true?” the queen asked him. “Might they be immortal?”

“I would ask that they grace us with their divinity, so that we may be blessed.”

“Clever words,” Sif answered. “But not clever enough to hide your intentions. You wish to test them. Is that not blasphemy? To question a god? To doubt a god? You wager your very soul that these are but mere mortals?”

“I will give him proof,” Xandr said, his voice resonating from wall to wall, “so that no one will doubt us.” The naked warrior moved into the center of the room, slowly drawing the six feet of steel from over his head, and where the sun painted mosaics of light against the floor, he thrust the blade down, and the sound of metal on stone resounded, followed by an unearthly rumble and flashes of light.

All who watched were stunned to silence. Even Thelana looked on, forgetting herself entirely. Xandr released the weapon, and it remained, suspended on its tip. Before that moment, even he had been unaware of it, that his sword could hover like it did. But Emmaxis had a will of its own, he knew, whispering instructions into his mind, that he often mistook for his own thoughts. The priest opened his mouth, but no sound came out, and at last he cowered.

Standing from her throne, her arms wide, Queen Frazetta addressed the host, a slight tremor in her voice. “Truly, the gods of old are not bound by custom, and may come to us in whatever fashion they choose.” Her words were diplomatic, but whether she spoke them out of religious devotion, or to appease those with whom she would seek a favorable treaty, he could not be certain. Their nakedness, however, did not seem to faze her, and he did not doubt that, as queen, she was accustomed to many stranger habits. Rather, it was the sword that appeared to move her. “Welcome to my kingdom. We shall do what we can to honor you.” Without hesitation, the queen moved from her dais, unfastening the gold brooch at her shoulder, and her stola crumpled about her feet, so that she stood wearing only her crown and the gold bands about her arms and wrists and ankles. A string of gasps followed. A number of others looked away or covered their faces. It was a powerful act, evoking only confidence, and Xandr could not help but admire the woman. Even stripped of her clothing, she took on a regal air.

The seeds of change were planted. He could feel it in the way they watched him, and Thelana, and the naked queen. What was for ages a sign of poverty and slavery, and debauchery, would in time fade into obscurity.


 

Ages of Aenya: Book 2 Chapter 12, “The Prince of Serpents”

XandrVsPDA

Xandr was in a dark place. It was not the cage he had been placed into or the walls beyond, but the dungeon of the self, the light of reason, faith, and hope having gone from him. Such darkness could not be abated, even by the noonday sun. It was the place he came to in the deep valleys of sleep, where he would question the Mother Goddess and doubt his purpose, when he feared his existence, all existence, possessed no grand design, but was little more than a succession of happenstance, misery and fortune two sides of the same coin. After wandering through labyrinths of doubt, Xandr often found escape in the ghostly memory of QuasiI, or by the guiding hand of the Mother Goddess, or in Thelana’s loving eyes. Where were they now? Was the Mother Goddess too remote in this bleak fragment of history to hear him? Only one thing was certain. He was alone.

The grinding of chains lifting him into the open sky roused him from his stupor. He did not have the will to wrestle with the cage, though he could now, in the light, make out its crude construction, the rust flaking from the bars. He sat there for a moment, squinting under the intense blaze of sun, powerless, and then the sound of human voices brought strength back into his limbs. He tore the cage from its hinges and crawled into a standing position. Light percolated through a grated wall, casting hexagonal shadows across his face and body. The grate was on one side, adjacent to three walls streaked with blood, and the ceiling was low, barely enough to accommodate his height. Eldin was there, looking more animated than usual, as were two other men. They were far younger than Eldin, with skin like deep copper and stomachs hollowed for want of food. But like his ancestor whose body he occupied, they were corded with muscle throughout, their limbs like entwined ropes. And like him, they were both naked, and seemed commonly so, but he could only guess whether clothing was denied them or if, being in the distant past, man had yet to adopt a concept of shame. Either way, hope arose in his heart, however small, for under inhuman rule all humanity was as one brotherhood, and he rushed to Eldin’s side, stopping short of an embrace.

“Batal,” the old man addressed him, “. . . it is good you are here; I wished to document this most historic of days to complete my book, that is, of course, if I survive to write about it.”

“No,” said Xandr solemnly, “I have already failed you. I was within reach of the pharaoh, but could not lay a hand on him.”

Eldin’s face bunched into a ball of hair and wrinkles. “And what makes you think killing the pharaoh would have made any difference?”

“Wouldn’t it?” The other two men were watching, and Xandr could see the surrender in their eyes and on their haggard faces. He wondered if he looked as awful.

“No,” Eldin replied, “of course not! Kings are deposed throughout history, quite frequently I might add, and never has a nation fallen because of it. Nations are made by its people, not its rulers. Our fight is with the Septhera.”

“Enough of your lessons!” Xandr cried, taking the old man by the throat. “Tell me what I’m supposed to do!”

“I cannot!”

“And why not?”

“Because . . .” he gasped, “I don’t know!”

Xandr released him and he fell against the wall, clutching his throat. “How could you not know? I thought you were a historian. I thought you knew these events.”

“History is a mosaic, Xandr, which historians are always assembling and rearranging. We make conjectures. We make guesses on what the mosaic might look like if completed, but we never have all the pieces! We have hundreds, when there are perhaps tens of thousands of pieces.”

“Then how do you know I will do anything at all today?”

“Because your name is Batal, and your descendents would not have immortalized the name through generations of song, if you did not do great things. Shortly after this day, the revolution will begin to end Septheran domination over this planet, to bring the snake men to extinction! . . . But alas, I’ve said too much!”

“No, tell me more. Tell me everything you know.”

The larger of the two prisoners turned from Xandr to Eldin, saying, “Yes, tell us more about this revolution, if you are a prophet, as I have come to understand, for we are in need of good tidings.”

“No, No, No!” Eldin exclaimed, “Me and my big mouth! I fear I am not well suited to be a time traveling historian. My presence here, meeting you, which may or may not be part of the original time-line, might change things, might prevent you from acting the way you would have. It is already disconcerting that you have taken the place of your ancestor. Will you be as driven as he, without his experiences, without his loss to strengthen your resolve to fight?”

“I have my own loss,” Xandr said quietly. “The Septhera have done enough to warrant my hate.”

“How could anyone not hate them?” the more robust of the two prisoners replied. “There are many, it is true, who have come to accept their fate—who believe abject obedience is the wiser course, that it is better to live a slave than to die a free man . . . There are even those who ally themselves with the snakes, who worship the pharaoh as a god, and preach submission to them is a guarantee of security. But I say such men are traitors. Any man who does not lift his hand against a snake is no better than they.”

Xandr looked at him with renewed interest. He had spoken with a dignity that came unexpectedly given his appearance. “Who are you and how did you get here?”

“I am known as Tellhus. Before the serpents came to our village in Ilithia, I was a proud father and mason. They forced my people into the mines to look for metals, murdered those too weak for labor . . . and they, they ate my wife and children,” he added, devoid of feeling. “I rallied men to fight them; our pickaxes and our shovels broke their slimy scales—”

“But you did not succeed,” Xandr affirmed.

“We did not know it at the time, but our battle was with slavers, a lesser caste. After killing a good number of them, they sent for their warriors . . .,” his voice grew frail, exacting, as though reading the words from a scroll with difficulty. “We were fifty strong, strong with hate and anger and vengeance, and they were three, only three, cold and calculating and . . . fast . . . and we were slaughtered like swine. I alone survived, prepared to meet god with my pick in my hand, but they ensnared me, sent me to rot in their prison.”

“But we are no longer in the pits. Where are we now?”

“This is the arena,” Tellhus answered. “We are here, I suppose, because of our willingness to fight.”

“They make sport of suffering!” the lesser man chimed in, his voice full of dust and sorrow.

Tellhus silenced him with a stare. “We make things more entertaining for them. Since snake men do not work, and can spend cycles digesting, they bore easily. They like to watch things die, pitting beast against beast, saurian against saurian, man against man. And rarely, man against one of their own. But no single human can stand up to them and live. More than seventy went up against their slavers, the weakest of their race, and we killed . . . I dunno . . . four, maybe five . . . before we lost twenty to the Taker. Against three from the warrior caste, the fifty that remained stood no chance. Snakes are superior to man, far superior. To fight them is to die.”

“That’s not true.” It was the other prisoner again. “I was in the pits and I heard the talk, that the Batal alone killed two of them! Warriors as well, with his bare hands . . .”

“Impossible,” said Tellhus. “Tell him the truth, if you are the one called Batal.”

“He speaks truly,” said Xandr. “But I only started out bare-handed; I later acquired a chain and then a sword. They are not unbeatable, they . . .” By the Mother Goddess, is this it? Is this why I am here? To inspire hope?

Eldin smiled as understanding dawned on Xandr’s face. And though Tellhus appeared doubtful, the other prisoner looked on, unblinking.

“You may have been fortunate, if what you say is true, Batal—and some of us may break loose from time to time like an aurochs trampling over a herdsman, but humans will never be free of the yoke. When they came to Ilithia, our greatest hunters resisted them, but quickly we understood that they were the hunters, and we, the prey. Their first commandment was to forbid us our weapons—for without them we are powerless. Even in their digestive slumber, they are protected, by the scales they are born with. Truth be told, man is the most pathetic of creatures. Should we fall upon rock, we bruise; we bleed. Long ago, man thought himself first among predators, because of his reason. But we quickly learned our folly. Against those who think like men but fight like animals, we are no match.”

Xandr thought long on these words, knowing it was his duty to convince him otherwise. “What you say is not all true. If the snake men can think, then we must outthink them. If they have weapons, we must make superior ones; if they have scales, we must do better, with armor of bronze.”

“Armor? Bronze?” Tellhus echoed. “These words are meaningless to me.”

“Wait, you don’t have—” Xandr started, but cut himself short, considering how it might impact the future; he looked to Eldin, who nodded approval, and so he went on, “armor is used to protect the body, like clothing—”

“Clothing?” Tellhus remarked. “We have nothing like that in Ilithia. Is it customary in your village?”

By Alashiya! Xandr fell speechless with the realization, that in this forgotten past his people’s customs were not taboo, that as an Ilmar he was no stranger; and the words of his mentor came back to him, Since time immemorial when men became men, before the greater moon loomed in the heavens, we were all Ilmar. For hundreds of millennia, humanity knew nothing of want or possessions . . . or clothing.

His heart swelled at the notion. Before the Septhera, all of Aenya could be called Ilmarinen. But even after the revolution, when the snake men were forced to extinction, mankind—the world itself—was irrevocably changed. Subjugation and war must have taught man to fear, and fear breeds desire for power to overcome those fears . . . Somehow, through the millennia, Ilmarinen remained the last bastion of a simpler age, of an innocent humanity. Perhaps, even now, hidden in the river valleys between the Mountains of Ukko, the Ilmar were living free and prosperous, oblivious to the plight of the rest of mankind. But there was more to the story, he knew—for the world in which he was born was a ruined one, was divided into two hemispheres, where life could scarcely hope to thrive. Such questions had tormented him since childhood, and now the only man who might have the answers was standing before him. But time did not favor his curiosity, for already he could see the serpentine shapes casting long shadows across their cell. The mechanism holding the gate in place was undone and the five men, led by Xandr, wandered out into the haze. The earth was coarse, with sharp red-orange rocks uninviting to human soles. Through a distant arch in the surrounding wall, the sun glared, giving form and color to the tapestry of men and snake men seated along the perimeter. Most were slaves, but many thousands were snake-headed, their elongated faces trained on the five men.

There are so many humans, and yet, no one dares to challenge them.

Somewhere a snare drum rattled and a portcullis began lifting. The squeal of a winch and chain sounded for eternity. And then, an eerie chant of throaty S’s and rolling R’s swept through the masses, a long strain of repeated syllables impossible for the human tongue to approximate.

“What are they saying?” Xandr asked Eldin.

“It is the prince,” Tellhus interjected; “they chant his name. When we sing our woes in Ilithia, he is called Purple Death Adder, or simply, the Adder. I am surprised that your people know not of him. The name alone inspires dread. Workers show greater fear of his mention than of the lash. Our masters must think quite highly of us, or of you, if we are to face him. For some it is considered an honor.”

“Can he be killed?” Xandr asked.

“He is a pure-blood,” Tellhus explained, “of the royal caste. Pray we die quickly. Avoid the bite. Avoid the purple death.”

“What is the purple death?”

“The venom of the pure bloods,” he said. “Death comes quickly, but is exceedingly painful. For some less fortunate . . . I have heard . . . the venom can linger for days, even cycles, during which time the victim lives out dreams of unspeakable terror, as vivid as life itself.”

Xandr’s skin crawled with the possibility. Could he be dreaming, he wondered, lying in the cold grip of the Taker all this time, dying slowly as Thelana watched and waited? It certainly made more sense than any of Eldin’s explanations.

“Dreams?” the lesser man murmured. “Did you say dreams?” But the question was drowned out by the rising cacophony of hissing and rattling as a pair of hoofed saurians emerged from the open portcullis in a cloud of orange.

Tellhus did not shrink at the sight, but the other man shook with fear. Xandr put a hand on his shoulder to calm him. “Tell me your name?”

“My name, most regrettably, is Soog.”

“And how is that regrettable?”

“How can it not be, as it is a man with my name that must die a terrible and untimely death? Surely, yours cannot be a more fortunate name, as you stand here with me.”

“Courage, Soog! Don’t let them see your fear. Stand behind me and believe.”

“Believe?” he repeated, the word sounding strangely from his tongue. “What is there to believe in? Nothing but death awaits us. But I don’t want to die. I am afraid! I’ll admit it; I’m no hunter . . . I was but a simple fisherman before this . . .” And he continued to sob and tremble, despite his efforts to restrain himself.

“Sometimes,” Xandr replied, “belief is all we have. I’ll not deceive you, Soog; it is unlikely you will see another dawn, but all men must face the Taker. It is only how one faces him that matters. And we shall not be killed to amuse these monsters. Our deaths will have a nobler meaning.”

“Such heroic words!” Eldin exclaimed. “If only I remember them! Historians rarely have the opportunity to observe first hand so great events!”

Xandr scowled. “Fool! What do your writings matter at a time like this? Do you not stand here with us? Will you not share our fate?”

“Perhaps,” he said, “but perhaps not. You see, Xandr, I also was not born into this body. I found myself here the same way you did. I followed the wormhole made by the Serpent’s Eye. They are very tiny, you see, these wormholes, so tiny, in fact, that even light cannot fit through it. But something that does not possess matter, a soul, perhaps, consciousness—”

“Still your rambling tongue,” Xandr replied, “the prince is here.”

Having circled the arena, the saurian pair came to a stop, the dust still billowing, like orange smoke, from their hooves, and a cloaked figure made itself known, closing the distance between them with unnatural movements. Shining blades appeared from the hem of its sleeves and a snake’s tail drew hypnotic patterns in the air. As the cloak slipped from its scaly body, Soog let out a shriek, but his objections quickly went unnoticed amid the cheers, not from the Septheran’s throats, to Xandr’s confusion and dismay, but from the human onlookers in the rafters.

“Wait, Xandr!” Eldin cried, his eyes turning white, “hear me out! If you manage to find your way back to your time, you must seek out the book, the one written by my hand, in the original language of the Zo. By then, I will have pieced together the complete history of Aenya and you will be prepared to learn the truth.”

“What truth?” he asked.

“The truth you have been seeking, about the Great Cataclysm, about the Dark Age, and what has been kept secret from you since birth, the thing you’ve been raised to face as the Batal of your age!”

“How can you know all this?” Xandr exclaimed.

“I have seen it. Your future is my past and my past your future! I’ve lived events you have not yet reached, like on the mountain top, yes . . .” he added with a maniacal grin, “I will see you again on the mountain, but I won’t remember you!”

“Even in the face of the Taker, your madness knows no bounds!” Xandr admitted.

“Just remember the book, damn you; it will be difficult, but I will try to place it somewhere so that it ends up in your hands.”

Wind blasted the ground, etching away the hard-edged shapes at their feet. Swords and axes appeared as if molded from the earth. Stepping forward, Tellhus lifted a sickle-like sword to his face. There was no blood on its cutting edge, even after he ran his thumb hard against it.

Khopesh,” he said, “a guard’s sword, albeit an old one. At least they offer weapons.”

“What good are these!” cried Soog, considering the small ax. “They’re rusted beyond use! We might as well go bare-handed.”

“It is all for show,” Tellhus replied. “But if I can get in one good blow—just one—if I could but cripple the bastard, aye, I’d meet death with contentment.”

Standing over the weapons, Xandr counted one for each, but did not choose. “Your heart is full of hate, vengeance, but that will do us no good, Tellhus.”

“And what would you suggest, Batal?”

“Let me handle this prince of serpents . . .,” Xandr answered him, “I believe that I can best him, and that it may inspire others to rise against their masters. Think only of the men and women who are watching us. Our fight is for their eyes, not for the Septhera.”

“Mankind is doomed, Batal. Nothing will change after this day,” he added, dashing off suddenly, shouting with fury, “but my honor, when I twist this blade into that monster’s bowels!”

“No, Tellhus!” Xandr howled after him, “let’s face him together; don’t throw your life away!”

Sunlight reflected from the Septheran’s body, tinting him purple, 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 a fleshy membrane connecting the top of his head to his shoulders like the hood of a cobra. With his approach, his awfulness became more apparent, more intimidating; he was much taller than any human, with sinewy arms that reached to his knees and talon-like claws 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, are you, 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. This was a different human specimen, the Septheran could tell; 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?>> he asked simply.

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

<<And what of you? You do 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 cold blooded,” 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’ scales quivered from hood to three-pronged foot, his mouth gaping wide enough to swallow a man whole, his fangs, nine inches and 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. None of the Septheran’s movements were like those that would be made, or could be made, by a human opponent. 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. Chrome 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. Soon, the khopesh would crumble in his palm, leaving him only with the hilt.

As hopeless as things seemed to him, from the tiered walls above, the spectators witnessed a different battle unfolding. They saw the defiance, courage, and strength of a human slave, a sight never before seen in that arena, eliciting feelings buried with their grandfathers, from when the first of the Septhera came to Aenya and men took up arms against them. 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, the hope battling anxiety. And despite their masters’ angry lashing tongues, one-by-one, from the lowest to the highest tier, slaves began to rise from their seats.

But none of them could see Xandr’s waning strength. 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.

I’ve done all I could do . . . all a man can do. What more is left?

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 mothers’ 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 was taken aback. The human spectators began shouting with religious fervor; they witnessed a miracle and no one could doubt it. 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 no 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 agonizing, like 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.


 

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The Face of Radia

Princess Radia Noora of Tyrnael

For the past two years, I have been working on my latest novel, The Princess of Aenya, inspired by such classics as The Last Unicorn and The Never Ending Story; with a touch of Miyazaki and Game of Thrones thrown in for good measure. The book revolves around a young woman named Radia “Noora.” Her beauty is a big part of her character, but far more importantly, she charms and inspires everyone she meets. When people look at her, they see the person they love the most. So I knew I needed a portrait, and that it would be a tremendous challenge making one. How could I possibly convey all this to an artist?

When I came across Selene Regener’s gallery, I knew nobody would be better suited for this project. Only problem? She had recently given up art for a career in music, and was no longer taking commissions! Another setback, I thought, until I came across a piece of hers called “Awakening.” The more I looked at it, the more I was convinced I’d found the face of Radia. But could I get the rights? Maybe the picture belonged to someone else, was a commission for someone else’s character? For months, I e-mailed the artist, without reply. Until finally, Selene got my letter, agreeing right away to my proposal. I was overjoyed to be giving life to her painting, a name and a story to the mystery woman in “Awakening.”

Pretty young blondes are a dime a dozen on Deviant Art, however, so why did this piece strike me as it did? For starters, there’s the name, “Radia,” derived from the word “radiant.” In the book, she glows with a divine light. And as you can plainly see, “Awakening” evokes this same quality. As for the star on her forehead, in one chapter, Radia dreams she is dancing through space and every star in the galaxy is her twin sister. While she isn’t quite literally a star, like Yvaine from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, the dream sequence is a clue to her “true” nature. Finally, without giving away too much of the plot, the title of the piece perfectly coincides with the novel’s climax, in a chapter that could very well be called “Awakening.”

The Aenya System

Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the mismatched eyes. I won’t pretend that the artist had this in mind. A coincidence like that will make you question reality. But alas, no. Originally, the girl in “Awakening” had two turquoise eyes; Radia has only one. Still, that’s pretty damn coincidental! How many people have turquoise eyes? Knowing how touchy some artists can be, I worried Selene might disapprove of my tweaking the piece, however minor, and I could not use a portrait of Radia without showcasing her most defining quality! Fortunately, Selene was happy to make the change, turning the second eye violet. And, in case you were wondering, Radia’s eyes reflect the moons of Aenya; the turquoise, Infinity, and the violet, Eon; making the star on her forehead, symbolically, the sun!

Oh, and did I mention Radia loves to sing? And that her voice can best be described as … well, just listen to Selene singing!

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If you haven’t done so already, please visit Selene Regener’s remarkable gallery at Selenada. Also, be sure to check out the original “Awakening,” and, while you’re at it, consider donating something to her GoFundMe campaign, “Healing Through Sound.” People with so much talent deserve our support!

Lastly, if you’re out there reading this, Selene, thank you! A million times, thank you! You’ve given a face to a great character!

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