THE AENYA BESTIARY: NEREID

Nereid

Nereid courtesy of Alexey Lipatov

 

The hippocampus, nereid, or “water horse,” as it is colloquially known, is an aquatic mammal resembling a dolphin and a horse. It makes its home in and around The One Sea, along rocky shorelines, where it dines on crustaceans hiding in the reefs. The species is few in number, bordering on extinction, and is very shy, keeping primarily to its own kind. Devoted fishermen can go their entire lives without seeing a nereid in the wild, but those that do regard it a good omen. Not surprisingly, most people living far from the Sea believe the nereid is a myth.

PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES: The nereid possesses a hardened outer layer of fat, much like a whale or dolphin, and dorsal-like fins that can contract and expand. It can be blue, turquoise or aquamarine in hue. It does not have gills, and so cannot breathe underwater, but can hold its breath for up to thirty minutes. Most of its time is spent with its head above the surface, however, and its body submerged. Its fluke, or tail fin, can pivot like an arm. Because of its mammalian spine, the tail maintains a horizontal axis in the water to better facilitate locomotion. On land, its fluke turns vertically for balance and to eliminate drag. Males weigh in at 1500 to 2000 lbs., standing 8′ with frill extended, whereas females are considerably smaller, at about 1000 lbs. and 6’5.

LIFECYCLE: After an initial gestational period, wherein the placenta hardens into an egg, a pregnant nereid will lay its eggs, rarely more than two, in a nest of sand. The shells are bright blue-green in color, and glitter like luminescent coral. Bits of eggshell bring a high price in the bazaars of the coastal cities, and are sometimes worn as jewelry. When an egg hatches, the infant instinctively makes for the water, to seek others of its kind. Its average lifespan is forty years.

hedoniacavalry

Logo by Evan Kyrou

HISTORY: The nereid is thought to have thrived in the Ocean of early Aenya, before the Greater Moon, when the planet was wetter. The Cataclysm greatly diminished their numbers, but as more than 90% of other species perished, the nereid managed to eek out an existence along the shores of the last remaining sea. It is thought that their adaptability, to thrive on both land and sea, helped steer the species from extinction. Nereid are swift and intelligent, and have few predators, aside from merquid, who consider them a delicacy.

To the island natives of Aea, the nereid was divine, an avatar of Irene, goddess of love and peace. The founders of Hedonia, who were settlers from Aea, continued the tradition, holding the nereid in the highest esteem. It is the sacred animal of the Sea God, Sargonus, and killing a nereid remains a capital offense, though no record of such an act exists.

IN CAPTIVITY: Because of their rarity, grace and beauty, only the highest ranked members of Hedonian society are allowed ownership of the nereid, and even then, the animal must be maintained with utmost care. As a sign of their station, commanders of the legion will use them as mounts, never straying far from the coast, so that the animal not suffer from dehydration. Nereid-themed symbols appear throughout Hedonian society, on banners, crests and armor.

Demacharon, First Commander of the Legion, discovered a wounded foal while captaining his trireme. Its hide had been torn by merquid hunters, but he managed to nurse the animal to health. He named it Evening Tide, after the time when it was found. Believing that the gods had blessed him, Demacharon commissioned a special helm with a nereid crest. A decade later, Evening Tide carried him into battle against the merquid on the shores of Sarnath, days before the tsunami that breached the city’s outer walls.

***

Learn more about the nereid in Ages of Aenya at www.nickalimonos.com!

ThelanaNereid

Thelana rides a nereid off the coast of Thetis.

The Nomad: A Love Story DLC

The Nomad is a love story, a mythical tale of heroism and enduring faith, parts Odyssey, parts The Arabian Nights

Like the Greek hero, Odysseus, Dynotus is twenty years from his homeland, searching the desert for Sali—the woman he loves—who has been taken as a slave. It is rife with fantastic locales, mythical monsters, and epic bloodshed, all set against the endless sands of the Sahara.

The Nomad is my first novel, that I wrote when I was in high school. It is presented here for the first time in its entirety in PDF.

 

[The Nomad: A Love Story]

 

The Nomad: Chapter 6

Disclaimer: This is a love story and an adventure, a modern take on The Odyssey, set in a mythological past where all of the world’s pantheons coexist. It is my first full-length novel, which I wrote in high school circa 1993. 

The Nomad represents a much younger and less experienced Nick Alimonos, but also, a writer who was more passionate, confident, and brash. If you can get past all of the warts (the wordiness, archaic language, melodrama, and awkward sentence structure) I think you’ll find a fun and fascinating story to enjoyThank You.


 

Chapter 6

I found Seline’s white robes soaked with tears when I met her. I had finally reached my homeland as Elios Hyperion and Apollo began to carry the sun across the sky. It melted into the atmosphere like a boiled egg spilling its yellow yoke over the horizon. I had just come over a grassy hill, when I saw the palace standing in a cloud of thick fog. It was on that hill, that I found Seline running toward me. In one hand she carried a handkerchief and with the other she held up her dress so that she could run.

We embraced and I saw that her golden hair had turned gray and her skin had become pale and sickly. Her eyes were pink and weak and shimmered with dampness. Her hands were cold and numb. When I saw her like this, I was in so much shock that I could not speak. Then, she said, “Dynotus, is it you? Is it really you?”

“My dear, who else could it be?”

“I thought you were dead.”

“Why would I be dead?”

“Did you not seek the crown?”

“I did.”

“At first, I knew nothing of the crown. But when I heard stories of what fate befell those who sought it, I believed you were dead. After all, you are only a man.”

“Yes, but I am a man who loves you, and no power on Earth or on Mount Olympus can stop true love.”

“Dynotus, I love you so much. . .” and she paused to catch her breath, “. . . and when I thought I would never see you again, I began to slowly wilt and die, and hoped that I would so that I could find you in Elissium, so that we could be together. I wished to waste away so that nothing but the echo of my tears would remain. My tears for you.”

“There is no need for that now. I have returned with the Crown of Kirce, and we will be wed this very day! Nothing can separate us again.”

And I lifted her in my arms and carried her to the palace, and as I did, the fog lifted and the sun rose high into the air warming Mother Gaea, and flowers sprouted after each step I made.

The gates of the palace opened and all the guards and maid servants greeted us with hospitality and joy. This, at first, surprised me, for I had not expected such a warm and friendly greeting from people whose acquaintances I had slain. Then I saw the King, who rushed toward me with open arms. Though he was smiling, I could tell that much grief had befallen him. “Dynotus!” he exclaimed, “you have returned!”

“What happened? I believed you despised me and wished me dead.”

Then the King laughed and replied, “I did! I did! When you left, I thought you would not return and rejoiced. But my daughter locked herself in her room and cried. There was not one day that passed that she did not cry. She did not eat. She did not sleep. And she said she would never leave her room unless she saw you coming toward the palace from her balcony window. I implored her to come out, but, she refused. I offered her everything a young woman could want. Clothes, jewels, horses, servants, she cared nothing for them. At last, I broke down her door and saw that she had become thin and frail, and that her skin had turned pale and her eyes lost color, and I became terrified. I thought she would die of grief. Then, I fell on my knees and begged her to tell me of anything that would make her eat. And she said, ‘to see Dynotus again’. It was then, that I realized, that she truly loved you. And I told her that I could not find you. But, that, if you were found, or if you returned alive, I promised her to be wed to you. With that promise, she ate.

Then, we waited. The entire kingdom fell into mourning and prayed to the gods for your safe return. Even the guards, when they saw my grief, hoped for your return.”

“So I didn’t need to find the crown?” I asked.

“My son. . .I give my blessing. If marrying you will make my daughter smile again, then marry you she will!”

Seline hugged me and looked deep into my eyes, then smiled and turned to her father. Already, her beauty had returned. “And for her wedding wreath, she will wear the Crown of Kirce!”

A crowd of people gathered round to see it. The King lifted it in his hands and said, “magnificent! I have never seen a treasure of its equal. It will make excellent raiment to my daughter’s head, its beauty surpassed only by her own.”

Seline smiled and reached out her hands to touch it. “Ohh, it is beautiful!” she said, and as she began to place it on her head, the maid servant Astymeloisa called out. “Seline, you have such beautiful things. I know I would never be able to afford such a gift for my wedding. But at least, let me try it on, to know what it would be like to be you.”

“Oh Astymeloisa, you are such a good servant. I would be more than kind to offer it. . .,” and Seline handed Astymeloisa the crown. The maid servant combed her hair back and stood upright to look her best, then, smiling with enthusiasm, did place the crown atop her head.

I think, I was looking down at the time it happened. I was lost in thought, wondering about the mildew growing on the brick walls, when I noticed, what at first I thought was a gust of wind, blow a leaf out of my hand. Then, the heat burned my side and I panicked. I yelled Seline’s name and lunged myself at her, toppling her to the ground. I turned around and heard people screaming, crying. Astymeloisa was still alive, though. Poor girl must have clung on to life for several minutes before she died. I remember her turning and turning and screaming. It took five buckets of cold water before the flames were drowned out, and by then, nothing was left of Astymeloisa but a black charred corpse. The crown had turned to dust, and I could have sworn that Kirce was alive and back to normal some place, laughing at me. I just thanked the gods for whatever impulse drove Astymeloisa to put on the crown before Seline. What I would have done if Seline had put on the crown, could I not even bring myself to think.

The King commanded that several days of mourning be observed for the dead maid servant. I could not believe how things were changing. Not even the King saw women in the same respect. At one time, the King would have sold Astymeloisa to me like a farmer who sells his livestock, to be used as a private whore. But today, due to Seline’s friendship with her and my love for Seline, Astymeloisa’s death became a national tragedy. Because of this, our wedding was postponed. Perhaps, if we had been married a few days earlier, I would not be here, speaking of what was to happen next.

 

The day of our wedding took many days to prepare, even with the hundreds of servants and maid servants working for the King. I demanded that as a naturist, the ceremony be as informal as possible, so Seline agreed to wear only a simple white robe and a gold tiara. Furthermore, a high priest of Zeus was summoned from the north, in Macedon, to marry us.

When the big day came, everything went as planned, even up to the very end of the marriage ceremony. The priest announced us husband and wife, and when I turned to look at Seline, for the first time my wife, all the memories of every woman I had known, melted away, and I experienced a thrilling moment of unspeakable joy, far beyond even the wildest of my sexual adventures. All that I could think, was of how I wished to swim in the ocean blue of my beloved’s eyes, and could not believe that, I had never even kissed Seline, not even once, and that by kissing her would I erase all memory of ever having kissed before.

I placed my hand behind her waist and cocked her head back. She gave me a welcoming smile and I descended down to drink of her rose pedal lips, when, suddenly, a cry was heard from the back of the temple. I turned to see the disturbance, my lips having just glided over hers, close enough to feel her breath, but, never having touched.

“I object to this wedding!” the voice cried out.

King Demaratus rose from his chair and asked, “who dares interrupt this union?”

Then, the crowd parted like the Red Sea, and coming forth, a strange old man with dark and wrinkled skin. He sat upon an old wooden throne carried through the temple on poles. The poles were held by four men in black robes and black turbans. His one eye was bloodshot and stared coldly at me, while the other sank closed. His nails were long and dirt filled, and his teeth were black as night. He spoke with a harsh and raspy voice, “I dare insult anyone, I, Iuz the Cruel!”

“And why should these two not be joined in marriage?” asked the King.

Iuz whispered into one of his guard’s ears and the guard brought forth a wooden box and opened it. Upon seeing the contents of the box, Seline screamed, and the others in the temple were just as shocked. Laying there, lifelessly, was a human arm, stained with blood and severed below the elbow.

“What is the meaning of this?!” cried the King.

“This is the arm of my son. My son who was mutilated by the Son of Zor. For this crime, he must be punished.”

Suddenly, out from another caravan, came Trax the Torturer. He looked as mean as ever, but, this time, with only one arm. Now, however, he had attached to his severed limb a large iron clamp, one which held his double bladed ax. “I demand justice!” cried Trax.

“Well, you shan’t have it. Dynotus did nothing wrong. You were bandits intruding upon Greek land. Dynotus was right for banishing you then, and he will be right to banish you now,” said the King.

Iuz leaned closer to the King and said in a deep voice, “oh, you misunderstand, my King, we are not asking for justice, we are telling you of the justice you are to receive, you and Dynotus!”

“Guards, take them away!” the King commanded.

Suddenly, hundreds of soldiers surrounded the room. All of them dressed like Iuz’ guards. The Greek soldiers had disappeared. “All your guards are dead. We took care of them outside the village. In the Greek harbor is a fleet ten times the size of the last one I sent. It was easy to get beyond your defenses, since half of your army is attending this wedding. I was prepared to contend against a much greater force. I suppose this is my lucky day. And this time, we mean to sack the city of all its treasures, including the beautiful women!”

“Enough! Guards or not, if you did not learn the last time, you shall learn now! For as a trophy, I swear: before you leave here this day, shall you take back your own arm, held in a box!” I threatened.

“I think not!” Iuz replied, and as I went to smote him, did he cast from his hand a glowing jade beetle, which struck me on the waist and wrapped around me like a belt. A jolt of energy ran through me, as if I had been struck by lightning, and I fell to the floor paralyzed.

Iuz leaned over me and grinned, “I heard of your might, Dynotus, and so came prepared. Not even the greatest of the desert giants or the mightiest of the task genies can remove the Scarab of Nether Sharrukin, once it is placed upon them. When it attaches to your body, you become as powerless as a child.”

Then, two of his guards grabbed me and began to beat and kick me. I sustained their blows, unable to move, and watched as Trax and Iuz did their evil, and I, powerless to stop them.

“The girl is mine!” Trax said, taking Seline in his grasp.

Iuz turned to me, and pointing his bony finger, said, “I thought for a long time the punishment I could enact upon you. But it looks as though the Fates have been generous. For there is no greater torture I can conceive, then letting you live and taking your beloved with me! If I were to kill you, you would merely ascend to Mount Olympus as a demi-god. If I were to kill her, you would know her fate, and eventually end your mourning, perhaps to find another love. But by taking her with me, you shall never know what tortures she will be made to endure. You will be plagued for all eternity by the unknown, and you will live, never knowing whether she is alive or dead, whether she is happy or whether she is forced into wedlock with another! A finer punishment, I could not have devised!”

Seline turned to him and said, “you monster! How could you be so. . . so. . .”

“Cruel!” he finished. “That is why, my sweet, they call me the Cruel!”

Trax pushed Seline to the ground and fastened manacles around her ankles, dragging her away in chains. Desperately clinging to the ground, Seline looked at me as long as possible, pleading, “Dynotus, help me!”

I reached out with all my might, taking her hand in mine, and said, “Seline, you must forgive me, you must forgive my weakness, but, I cannot move! But, I swear. . .I swear that wherever you go, wherever he takes you . . .I will find you, in the remotest corners of the world, I will rescue you, I promise!”

“And I swear, my love, that I will never love another. They may force themselves upon my body. . .but they will never have my heart; it shall always be yours!” and with that, she began to cry, as our hands were pulled apart.

I watched Seline be dragged from me and felt an enormous rage build within. It was as if something in me had exploded. With that, I grabbed the scarab from my gut, and letting out a blood-curdling scream, one to scare the meanest of wolves, I did free myself from its power. I crushed the scarab in my hand, and taking hold of both guards, did smash their heads together and break their skulls.

Immediately, I rose to my feet, my godly strength returned. I ran after the bandits, but, already they were on horseback. I called for my own horse, Thunderfoot, riding him out to the harbor.

There, I saw a fleet of ships departing. I wished to catch them, but, knew not which of the many ships contained my love. With all of my effort, I was too late.

           ***

It was then that I vowed, that no matter what the cost, no matter how difficult, no matter how impossible, I would search and I would find her, even if it took the rest of my life. I would not rest. . .until she was back in my arms again.

This is how I lost my treasure, effendi, the greatest treasure that any man may possess, the treasure of true love.


 

Want the next chapter? Previous chapters? Search the archive here: THE NOMAD

The Nomad: Chapter 5

Disclaimer: This is a love story and an adventure, a modern take on The Odyssey, set in a mythological past where all of the world’s pantheons coexist. It is my first full-length novel, which I wrote in high school circa 1993. 

The Nomad represents a much younger and less experienced Nick Alimonos, but also, a writer who was more passionate, confident, and brash. If you can get past all of the warts (the wordiness, archaic language, melodrama, and awkward sentence structure) I think you’ll find a fun and fascinating story to enjoy. Thank You.


 

Chapter 5

I traveled great distances and through many lands to find the crown. So many adventures had I experienced on my journey, that the quest to find the crown could make yet another story all its own. But those encounters are of no importance to my tale. I do recall, however, the glorious day I returned triumphant. I spoke with many fishermen on the whereabouts of the island, where the wicked queen and sorceress, Kirce, once dwelled. Most of whom I spoke with told me they knew not of such a place. Then, I met a blind poet who told me of an odyssey. He spoke of ancient times, back during the war against Troy. He told me of a man who had angered the god, Poseidon, and had caused him to wander the Great Sea for twenty years before finding his way home to Thaki. And so, I went to the city of Thaki, and found that this man had long been dead. However, his great grand children knew of Kirce, and of how to find her. They told me to go to the edge of the river, Akaron, and gave me two things they said I would need. One was a conch shell and the other was a pair of two gold coins called obol.

When I arrived at the river, I found it surrounded by a thick fog. Nothing could be seen in any direction. Looking at the ground, I could tell that no life remained. And I wondered, where would I find a boat? Where did the river lead?

Finally, I decided to blow on the conch. To my surprise, the shell made a loud noise, like a horn. I waited several minutes and saw a ferry boat come crossing by. The boatman held a long oar and was shrouded in a black cloak which masked his face like a veil of mourning.

I stepped into the boat and asked if I could be taken to see Kirce. The boatman did not reply, but began to row as if he had heard and understood my request. After a long time sitting, I grew weary, surprised the boatman knew where he was going, wondering with amazement why the thick cloud neither lifted nor ended. I knelt over to drink of the water in thirst, but felt a cold, bony hand pull me back. I assumed the water was not safe to drink and said nothing of the matter.

After a long period, the boat came to a stop near similar, lifeless soil. As I stepped out, the ferryman extended his hand, and, to my terror, I turned to look into the face of death. Now, I understood the mystery of the fog and of the conch shell. I had summoned the ferrymen of death, who had taken me to find a dead woman. And the gold coins were for his payment.

After giving him the obol, I stepped on to the island where the fog cleared, seeing it was midnight.

Though I had journeyed through the Underworld, the island was not of the Underworld. It seemed as though Kirce had died, but somehow—through dark magic—had avoided Hades. Instead, she seemed to have brought Hades to her. The only difference, which I could tell, is that the guardian dog, Cerberes, was not there, nor were the Gates of Thanatos. Yet, the soul of Kirce still dwelled on the island, and only Charon had known to find her. For the island was shrouded in fog, and only the lost at sea could find their way to it.

I tread through muddy ground until I reached a paved clearing. The path led to a dark temple. On each side of the road, sculpted gorgons guarded the entrance, illuminated by distant torch light. I walked between rows of demonic faces and through an archway to a pair of double doors. The walls were lined by centuries of dust and mold. In the corner of the archway did I see many cobwebs. Sitting in the center of a large sewn web, a black widow spider made her nest. I took one of the torches from the wall and entered the temple.

Even with the torch light, it was difficult to see. From room to room, no light could penetrate the darkness.

The temple was cold and unfeeling. It appeared that no living breath had graced its halls in a hundred years or more. Exploring further, I discovered a hallway filled with candles. Walking by, each candle lit itself.

The candles led me to a room dug one foot beneath the rest of the temple. Entering it, I found myself standing in mud. Then, I heard a strange noise, and turning to look against the wall, found numerous pigs. Most of them were dead, but, one moved toward me. Then, the pig spoke, with a voice no different than a man’s.

“Turn back!” the pig said. “Lest ye suffer the fate that my crewman and I have befallen!”

“I am Dynotus, Son of Zor. I seek to find the queen, Kirce,” I answered him.

“She is here, but you do not want to find her. Turn back or become like one of us!”

At first, I considered the pig’s warning. But it was not enough to convince me to leave. I did not think my fate was to end up a pig. I knew my destiny to hold greater things, and so I marched on.

After a lengthy search, I found another room. There was a pentagram etched into the floor and candle stands placed at each point. Beside the symbol, did I discover a book case. Lifting one of the books, it crumbled to dust. Finally, I discovered, high on a pedestal, the queen’s throne. As I stepped up to it, I found, to my horror, the skeletal remains of Kirce. Apparently, she had died alone, sitting on her throne, none having the decency to bury her. It was no wonder her soul had never reached Hades. She had died without burial, a fate far worse than death. Then, the thought occurred to me, that, perhaps, I could be the one to do her the honor. But when I touched her bones, they, too, turned to dust. With that, I saw a golden crown fall from her head and come crashing to the floor. Taking the Crown of Kirce in my hands, I felt triumphant. However, as I began making my way back to the temple doors, a horrifying thought occurred to me. I wondered, that with everything in the temple seeming so ancient, with the books and the remains of Kirce having turned to dust, how was it that the pigs in that one room, who had warned me about being transformed, were not only still intact, but still alive? It didn’t make sense.

As I made my way through the passage to the double door, I heard an echoey voice coming from all directions. A cold chill ran down my spine, as the name, “Dynotus,” rang throughout the temple. I halted, swinging my torch up defensively. Then, I saw a beautiful young woman descend a staircase, a staircase I knew not was there. She had raven black hair and black painted eyes, and her lips were painted as black as her robes. She pointed a finger at me, smiled, and glided over to where I stood as if she had no feet. “What woman are you?” I asked in bewilderment.

She raised her hand, letting her sleeve slide down her arm to her shoulders, revealing a gold bracelet like a serpent coiled around her wrist. She brushed a long nail against my neck and whispered, “I see your wicked thoughts, oh handsome one. What would you have me do to you?”

I grabbed her arms and pushed her away, “I have no thoughts for a woman such as yourself!”

She receded and spoke in a loud mocking tone, “am I not beautiful, Dynotus?”

“I will not be seduced by a dead woman! You appear beautiful, but your flesh is cold and icy.”

“Let that not deter you from my pleasures. Kiss my lips and let your blood warm me.”

“Rather would I kiss the lips of a serpent! For I bet a serpent hath less poison in them.”

“Come now, Dynotus,. . . .look into my eyes and turn me away if you do not desire me.”

And I did look into her eyes, falling spellbound. Within them, I found the erotic wiles of a whore. I embraced and kissed her, and fantasized of our eternal love making, all the while, strange voices pounded my head.

Kirce raked her nails against my bare skin, scratching my back, and soon, I felt myself losing blood. I looked to see a pool of it around my feet, with Kirce kneeling to my waist to drink from my thigh. A deep sense of bliss came over me as the black witch sated her nefarious appetite. Then, I saw my reflection in the Crown of Kirce. But, to my horror and disgust, I also saw the image a ghoul, sucking on my blood.

I screamed and kicked her away. She fell back, laughing, and licking her lips. Then, she knelt and lifted the crown, placing it atop her head. “At last! At last, you have given me the blood I’ve needed to renew my body! Before you came, my beloved, I was merely a specter.” Then, she added, with a hint of sadness, “I was wasted away to nothing, nothing but a cold and lonely spot in the corner, only by sheer will keeping my soul on this island and forcing Death away. I would not go! I knew that a man would come to restore my beauty, like the shipwrecked crews from before. But you. . .you are special. So handsome. . .and a demi-god! Your life force will sustain me for centuries! I wouldn’t change you into a swine, beloved.”

“Yes, but how long will your youth last, before you must drink of me again, witch!?”

“Only in another few days,” she replied. “But why worry of such things? Here we are, free from death, you and I. . . .together, forever! We shall feed off of each other’s life forces. My magic and your blood will make us immortal!”

“I already am immortal!”

“Then, stay here. . .and I shall give you everlasting love!”

“You know nothing of love. Once, I knew as much about it as you, but I have learned, and it is a thing greater than immortality.”

“But, I can be any woman you want. . .any woman you desire. . .please stay here with me!”

“I must return!”

“Ahhh. . .so you are getting married to a beautiful princess, I see!”

“Get out of my mind, lest I take back from you your life!” I threatened.

“Describe her to me. Tell me what she looks like, how she acts. I can be her. . .I can be her!” she pleaded.

“You could never be her!” I screamed, and turned my ring into a sword.

After a pause, she responded, “you are not a shipwrecked sailor, are you?”

“I have come for the crown!”

“Then, if you must go, sleep with me one night, or else I shan’t give it thee.”

“One night, yes, and in the morning I shall be like a newly cooked rooster, dried of blood and seasoned for your hunger.”

And Kirce took off her clothes and did walk toward me naked, speaking in seductive whispers, “now, Dynotus, legends of your lust have even reached my ears. How could such a man like yourself, resist a woman such as I? How can you leave here, not having known what I feel like? Don’t you want to. . .?”

“Silence! Give me the crown and let me leave or I shall take off your head!”

Kirce raised her hands, making her robes jump back on, and floated away, gazing at me with eyes of evil. Then, like some voracious beast, her nails grew black and long, like the talons of a vulture, and a forked tongue slithered from her mouth as she spoke, “Men, they are such pigs!”

With that, a beam of light erupted from the center of her crown. I raised my silver sword and the beam was deflected back at her! I then heard a horrid scream, and looked to see, where Kirce once stood, nothing but a crumpled robe and a gold crown.

I walked over the remains, taking the crown, and found a piglet underneath. She looked at me and tried to run. But I moved more swiftly, turning her belly-side up, to make certain that the creature was female. I laughed, laughed and walked down the corridor to the pig pen.

When I opened the door, I found the crew of sailors, now pigs, and seeing that they had no mate, did offer them the swine in my hands. Closing the door, I remarked, “there you go, Kirce, several mates with whom to share your everlasting love!”


 

Want the next chapter? Previous chapters? Search the archive here: THE NOMAD

The Nomad: Chapter 3

Disclaimer: This is a love story and an adventure, a modern take on The Odyssey, set in a mythological past where all of the world’s pantheons coexist. It is my first full-length novel, that I wrote in high school, circa 1993. 

The Nomad represents a much younger and less experienced Nick Alimonos, but also, a time when I was more passionate, confident, and brash. If you can get past the warts, I think you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Thank You.


 

Chapter 3

The next morning, I was quick to mount my faithful steed early, so that I would not be mobbed by my many votaries. Like the wind I did travel over land, for my stallion was of sacred and Olympian descent, and no beast or fowl on Earth could match his speed. Like the thundering of Zeus’ chariot wheels did the hooves of Thunderfoot equally quake and move with untiring and unyielding speed. By noon, I had reached the top of my mountain abode, and looked down upon all the land governed by the King.

Climbing to my humble home, I found the serenity and peace I once cherished. And yet, I was unable to meditate or be at peace. I thought, perhaps, I longed for the comfort of a woman’s touch. But I did not. And this baffled me, for as a man of nature, I had no desire for any material thing. I had eaten a good meal and did not thirst. Of the things I owned and valued, my horse and ring, I had both with me. Yet, I felt, that there was something I left behind, and that without it, I would never be whole. Within me there was an emptiness, a piece of my soul that was cold and barren. Deeply disturbed by these emotions, I prayed for a dream to reveal the secret of my longing.

I awakened suddenly that night, having drempt that I was wrestling with the son of Ares, the demi-god, Phobos, and was unable to best him. And then I noticed it, that the walls of my room were as empty and shallow as I. Till the coming of Dawn I lay restless, my feelings turned to torment. It was as though I had never known life nor lived it. I breathed and walked, and yet, felt no more living than the kouros, a man made of stone.

Looking out upon the horizon, I knew my destiny would lead me to the king’s palace, and knew without question, there I would return.

The day was warm and bright, and the chrysanthemums bloomed and the little birds sang, and I knew that Persephone had returned to her mother Demeter from her time spent in the Underworld. As I journeyed to the king’s palace, I chose to take an indirect route, so that I might cross through no village and keep unnoticed in my arrival.

When I saw the palace from afar, I dismounted and left Thunderfoot in a wooded olive grove, then threw my tunic round my shoulders and cautiously approached from the side. In this way, I hoped to find the King, so that I might tell him of my troubles without the knowledge of the old and stodgy oligarchs. As I walked, I came across the royal stables. Here were the charioteers and equestrians from Macedonia who tended to the royal mounts. It was there that I saw Clytemnestra, her rags muddied, clutching the reigns of a large horse upon which a young maiden sat, dressed in a short chiton, her golden tresses swaying in the breeze. At the sight of her, my heart raced, for I knew that it was Seline.

Clytemnestra was instructing the princess on how to ride a horse. Seline, all the while, attempted to balance herself upon the animal riding side-saddle, and as the horse trotted, she looked as if she were about to fall. Finding this amusing, I watched as she was eventually thrown face down into the mud. At first, I thought she might rise with tears or fury. But, to my surprise, she lifted herself with laughter, and seeing this did Clytemnestra laugh also. Seline was not hurt. But her hair, face, and clothes were soiled. After that, Clytemnestra told her that she should bathe immediately, for a princess should never be as filthy as a peasant. But Seline refused to listen and tried to leap upon the horse again. She lost her footing, however, and fell now backward into the mud, and I laughed again. Covered like a hog she arose, chiton sticking to her skin, globs of mud falling from her hair. Undaunted, she attempted to mount the horse, and it was apparent she had succeeded earlier only with the help of her maid servant. Finally, after many failed attempts, she accomplished the task and for several minutes rode free.

With the wind brushing against her she raised her arms defiantely and cried out in triumph. And as I looked, I found myself sharing in her newfound joy. Then suddenly, her bare heel kicked inadvertantly against the animal’s side, and the horse galloped too swiftly for her to control. Unable to halt the beast, she tugged on the reigns managing only to steer it towards the fence.

Immediately, I broke though the wooden boards in my path and leapt onto the field to intercept them. The horse charged blindly against me, but at the final instant before impact, bucked, tossing the loosely seated girl from its back. With my godly strength, I pushed the horse aside, and caught her in my arms. Our eyes met and in hers I saw a spark of remembrance.

“You . . . saved me,” she murmured.

“Those Macedonian breeds can be temperamental at times.”

“Have we met before?” she inquired.

“Yes, I am Dynotus.”

“You were the man I spoke to last night. But if, if you are Dynotus, what are you doing here? I thought you returned to Mount Olympus, to your home amongst the gods?”

I lifted her as I stood, saying, “I do not really live among the gods. Actually, my home is quite near to here, in the Taygetos.”

She smiled and replied, “Could you . . . put me down now, please?”

“But of course,” I studdered, doing as she asked.

“So you don’t live on Mount Olympus with Zeus and Athena?”

“No, Seline, I am not a god. I am only a man.”

“My father told me of your modesty. I am grateful that you came to help. Thank you.”

Then, I looked into her glimmering eyes and fell speechless. Being the son of Zeus, I could take anything from anyone. But, in the same instance, this made me feel apart from humanity.

“You really should go and clean yourself,” I said at last.

She blushed. “Yes, I should.”

As she strolled back to Clytemnestra, I called out, “If you like, I have a beautiful horse. He can take you to a river nearby and you can bathe there.”

She turned to look at me, combing a dirt stained lock from her eyes. “I adore horses! But they do not seem to share the same fondness for me. Is he gentle?”

I cupped her hands in my own. “As gentle as you, fair princess.”

“Yes, I would like to see him.”

I then whistled loudly and summoned the mighty Thunderfoot. Seline looked at him in awe. “He is so beautiful. His mane is so soft and white. I have seen no horse his equal. May I ride him?”

“If you wish,” said I, picking her up by the waist and gently placing her on its back. It was then that I realized, no man or woman had ridden my horse but I, and it was strange for Thunderfoot was a divine animal, a gift from Zeus, and would not lend himself to mortal hands, or so I thought.

“Do you wish to see the river now?”

“Oh no! I dare not!”

“But why?”

“She knows her place!” said Clytemnestra, accosting them suddenly. “The princess is not allowed to leave the palace grounds unless escorted by her father.”

“But Klea!” Seline objected, pouting, “He saved my life! Surely I’ll be in safe hands, with him. He is the son of Zeus, after all!”

“Well,” said the maid, “I don’t know about this. I’ll have to go ask your father.”

“Go ask and we’ll wait for you here.”

When Clytemnestra was far off, Seline turned to me with a devious grin, saying, “All right, let’s go!”

“But I thought you did not want to . . .”

“That’s just because of Klea. She’s hovers over me like an albatross. I had to wait until we could get away.”

“But your father . . .,” I began.

“Oh, my father is a stuffy old man. He keeps me locked away in the palace night and day! There is so much I don’t know and want to know! I haven’t any idea of the world or of anything in it!”

“Your father is a good friend. I cannot disrespect him.”

“Please, Dynotus, I want to roll in the grass and play in the sea . . . and I want to run naked in the gymnasium like the wives of the hoplites!”

“Seline!” I exclaimed, grabbing her by the ankle, “you are a princess. Such things are not for you.”

“What good is it to be princess then? Everyone envies me, my clothes, my jewelry, the palace where I live, and yet they don’t understand; I live no differently than an outcast, than a prisoner! I want to see other kingdoms, all the ones I’ve heard about: Thebes and Athens, and Olympus! All I know is outside my window, a small part of Sparta. And this must be the most boring place in the world with all the men living in their barracks or off fighting some war. I wish I could live in the barracks too, maybe become a hoplite myself . . .”

“Believe me, you don’t want that. Besides, women are not meant to fight. Your battle is maternity, in giving birth.”

“Did Tyrtaeus write that drivel? What about Athena, she wears armor and a helmet and carries a shield!”

“That’s different. She is a goddess.”

“And Artemis has her bow. Even Aphrodite fought at Ilium in the Trojan War.”

“You know the words of Homer?”

“I memorized the entire epic poem, both the Iliad and the Odyssey. What else is there to do when you are caged in your room like some animal?”

“You’re not like any woman I have ever known . . .,” I murmured softly.

Then she pierced my soul with her eyes, blue as the Aegean and penetrating as a hoplite spear. “Please, Dynotus, we haven’t much time. Once Klea comes back, it will be too late, and I’ll never know a day of freedom.”

 

Seline rode while I walked beside her, leading her to the river. Through a dirt path and over jagged rocks we went, between the olive trees and the eucalyptus. The stream we came to dashed against many layers of jutting stones, and there I helped her to dismount as Thunderfoot began to graze.

“Here we are,” I said. “Skotino, the dark river.”

Seline let her chiton slip off her shoulders and it fell as if loosely fastened, bundling round her ankles. As Spartan women did not wear undergarments, I was forced to look away, out of respect for her and her father. But she responded to me, “Do not be timid. Have you not seen thousands of women before? Do not the Spartan women show their thighs in public, and exercise with the men in the gymnasium as Lykourgos decreed to ‘produce in us habits of simplicity and an ardent desire for health and beauty of body.’?”

“It is true what Lykourgos said,” I answered. “But you are different, you are the-”

“I know. I am the princess!” she interrupted, wading knee deep into the current.

I spied upon her then as she splashed her sides gently, but her simple beauty did not manifest lust, but rather, a feeling of awe and reverence, an uplifting of my spirit as on the wings of Daedelus.

“Have you brought me here to make love?” she asked bluntly and unabashedely, a strand of hair lain wet across her cheek as she faced me.

“No!” I stammered. “I did not mean to mislead you.”

“Do you not think I’m beautiful?” she asked, river droplets glistening from her skin, revealing herself to me proudly as a sculptor would his korè.

“You are fair as any goddess,” I answered truthfully.

She smiled. “What hubris! But I suppose it’s alright, since your father is Zeus.” And then she pouted. “So then why do you not wish to make love to me?”

“I cannot,” I replied. “You are Demaratus’ daughter. It is forbidden.”

Seline and I parted ways without as much as a kiss. It was not that I did not want her. But in that she was a virgin princess, fornication with me, who was not her husband, would only defile her and make her a whore. Regardless, there was a greater than the pleasures of the flesh. I wished to wake each morning to find her resting in my arms. I yearned to share with her my home and all my life’s experiences. Yet, more than anything, I longed to do something special for her, to give her happiness, and to know that it was I who did so.

Several nights passed and I could not sleep, knowing now what it was that troubled me. One day, as I was gathering pomegranates from my garden, tortured by the icon of a bathing Seline as if stamped like a drachmae under my eyelids, a Muse took pity and gifted me with inspiration. Hence, I summoned my steed and rode to the port of Gythio where I met with Phoenician traders from Biblos. And from them I purchased sheets of papyrus and ink for writing.

For Seline I did compose a letter, the words being those of the Muse but with feelings my own, for I had little knowledge of writing. Then in the moonlight I crept along her balcony window and left the letter there for her to find. When she awoke the next morning, she stepped out on to the ledge and found a flower and a scroll. Curious, she lifted the flower to her nose and opened the scroll, which read thus:

 

With how melting a glance does she look towards me, more

Tender than sleep and death; nor are such sweets idly

proffered. But Seline answers me not, but wearing her

garland like some bright star shooting across the sky or golden

sprout or soft plume she strides with feet outstretched . . .

grace sits on the maiden’s tresses . . .

Were she but to look at me . . .

coming close to hold me with her soft hand, quickly

would I become her suppliant

 

After this, I returned one night to gaze at Seline’s empty balcony. Even in that darkest hour I found her, standing with candle in hand. And she called to me, “Dynotus, how I cherished what you wrote and read it if not a thousand times!”

“Seline, how do I find you not in dreams at this hour, when even satyrs pause their reveling to slumber?”

“Oh, but I dared not sleep for hope that you might come again unto my windowsill and this time catch you in an act of love.”

“And how do you know that it was I who sent you such doting words? Would any man be so foolish as to open his heart to a woman, to reveal his very essence and remain unshielded, like a naked breast against a spear point?”

She cast me a mischievious smile. “I did not say that they were doting words, Dynotus.”

“Then it is true that I am but the deliverer of the scroll. But the words belong to the Muses.”

“Do not the Muses come when they are summoned? Summoned by the yearning and aching of men’s hearts?”

“Tell me. Do you patrol your bedroom like a centurion watching for a thief? Is it passion that keeps you awake, or is it fear?”

“It is both. The passion that churns for you and the fear that you might not come again.”

“Then I pray this churning continue so that passion might thicken and become . . . love.”

“Dynotus, will you ask my father to marry us? I cannot know joy without you. I can’t breathe without you. I can’t live without you. The day you caught me in your arms, I knew that I would be your wife some day.”

“Should your father give me his blessing, I will marry you. Till then, pray to Aphrodite.”

“But no, Aphrodite is for love, and Hera for marriage.”

“But what is marriage without love? We should ask for both.”

“No, Dynotus! You are the son of Zeus. And Hera, his wife and goddess of marriage, despises all Zeus’ sons that are not her own. Your mother was Alcmena, a mortal woman, was she not?”

“Then praying to her will be of no use. Let us venerate Aphrodite, and that which Pandora’s Box did not release.”

“And what is that?”

“Hope.”

 

And so there I slept beneath her balcony, and when Dawn rose I did wake and enter the palace. There I sought the King, and found him on his throne. As always, Demaratus was delighted to see me. He greeted me warmly and asked, “Dynotus, my friend, what brings you here?”

Now, I was filled with fear, and kneeling before him did reply, “I have come to tell you my wish, that which you granted me the night of the banquet last.”

“Excellent!” he replied. “And for what have you decided to ask?”

“It is the one thing, the one thing that shall give me joy and happiness all the days of my life. I implore you, do not deny me this one wish!”

Demaratus laughed. “This is quite unlike you, Dynotus! Do not hesitate. Whatever you desire, I shall gladly grant. Do not fret.”

“I humbly request your daughter’s hand, your daughter, Seline.”

The King sat stunned for a moment, and then his smile turned to an angry scowl and his face pale and aged “. . . my daughter? You wish for my one and only daughter? She is the only person, the only thing left in this world that I love. Of all the women you have defiled, the only virgin, the only thing I know that is young and pure, all that I have left in the world that you have not spoiled! No! I will never allow your lecherous hands take from me my daughter! As if you could not go and satisfy yourself with all the whores in the village, you would dare come here and rape my precious Seline and make her one of them! I say never! You will see my death before your limb shall ever know the love of my young and innocent daughter! Go now and ravage a pig to satiate your appetite, and may I never suffer the sight of you within my hall again!”


 

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The Gorgon’s Lover

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

***

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