The survivors of the nuclear war of 2085 sought refuge from the lingering radiation that permeated the soil and sky. They dug into the ground beneath the remnants of the borough of Manhattan.
Generations passed and the underground dwellers found sanctuary in the abandoned subway tunnels of what had been New York City. At first, many braved the lingering radioactivity of the surface to fish in the rivers nearby. Increasingly, however, the Scions relied on livestock and vegetables planted in well-lit, subterranean farms.
Electricity was not a problem because the old, nuclear reactors used before the apocalypse still ran with minimal observation. The population grew and reached over five hundred by 2552.
Cyclone was the leader of a group of foragers called the Searchers, a faction within the population of the Scions. The Searchers numbered around fifty as did the other nine groups of Scions.
Cyclone was a tall, red-haired man who favored leather clothing. His flight-jacket-wearing band patrolled many of the interconnected paths with skateboards and bicycles.
They sought iron, aluminum and copper useful for forging and assembling go-carts, circuit boards and recycling into ingots. When the riders had enough oil rendered from their underground crops, they produced refined gasoline and drove their go-carts. These vehicles were modified to hydroplane through deposits of rainwater that formed murky pools in many of the tunnels.
Over the last six months rumors of strange creatures dispersed through the network of underground dwellers. Word spread of animals referred to as dragons. Some of the people had returned to the remnants of Grand Central Terminal with burn marks and scorched clothing.
“Do you believe in dragons, Cyclone?” asked his friend, Ex, who wore gloves and goggles.
“I’m not sure, Ex. Someone or something is responsible for the attacks on the explorers near Grand Central. We should exercise a new level of caution when we move through the passages. Let’s keep our eyes peeled in case we run into what’s out there.”
Cyclone and his fellow skateboarders and bikers carried torches and used adapted wheels to ride on the abandoned railroad tracks through the tunnels. The flames of the firebrands cast eerie shadows on the walls of the concrete and brick passageways.
Ex noted that some of the tunnels had completion dates from the 2000’s embedded in their cornerstones. None of the Scions knew the fullest extent of the labyrinthine corridors.
Cyclone’s band carried cellular radios that were modified to broadcast low frequency signals in the subway. These devices allowed the Searchers to keep in touch with the Minister.
The Minister was the oldest living person in the city. He was fifty-one years old. Based on the tradition of the community of subterranean dwellers this made the Minister the leader of the population. He had held his office for the last eight years. Rather than journey through the network of tunnels the Minister stayed at Grand Central and monitored the activities of the various teams.
The Minister had programmed his computer to track the locations of the cellular radios of the Scions and record their movements in a tentative, digital map. This allowed him to mark cave-ins and floods encountered by the Searchers and the other factions of the underground residents.
Cyclone’s group traveled through the cylindrical tunnels for an hour when they reached an unfamiliar bend in the road. Mysterious lights flashed from a source beyond the turn. The band of travelers stopped in their tracks.
Ex spoke in hushed tones to Cyclone.
“Cyclone, could that light be coming from the dragons?”
“I don’t know, Ex. I’ll call the Minister.”
The leader of the Searchers activated his cellular radio.
“Minister, do you read me? This is Cyclone.”
“Yes, Cyclone, you’re coming through loud and clear. How can I help you?”
“We’ve come across some strange lights emanating from the Delta Zone. Ex thinks they could be the so-called dragons that we’ve heard reports of. I thought we might take a look and see if we can get a video of who or what is out there.”
“Be careful, Cyclone. We’ve had a few explorers report back with injuries from whatever lurks beyond. Try to take a recording of the light source but don’t get too close. If need be, I can have other Scions ride to your location. Don’t forget the first-aid kits I gave you last week.”
“Okay, Minister. We’ll be careful and report back to Grand Central as soon as we can.”
Cyclone addressed his companions in the serpentine corridor.
“Let us move through this route with caution, Searchers. It will do all of us good to identify these so-called dragons before anyone else is hurt. The safety of the Scions depends on our reconnaissance.”
The group rode slowly to the curve in the rusted tracks.
Cyclone activated his radio, which had a video recording feature. He pressed the record button and reached around the turn in the path. He waited a few seconds as the strange lights passed over his hand then withdrew it.
The Searchers crowded around Cyclone as he activated the playback feature on his radio. The images were shaky, but the group of friends saw flashes of light and flame emerging from a twisting conglomeration of glossy, reptile flesh.
“Who goes there?” hissed a sinister voice.
Jets of flame spewed toward Cyclone’s video lens. The recording ended and the leader of the group looked at the rapt faces of his companions.
Ex said, “I don’t think we should go in there. If those are the dragons, we’ve heard of they look dangerous and unfriendly. There must be a dozen of them grouped together. We should head for Grand Central and check in with the Minister and the other underground dwellers. What do you think, Cyclone?”
“I agree, Ex. Whatever those things are, they’re more than the likes of us can handle. Let us go home, Searchers.”
The faction of explorers turned their bicycles and skateboards around and began the lengthy journey to Grand Central.
The old surface exits had been closed by falling wreckage from the collapsing buildings. They had constituted the ancient boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. Only the gateway at Grand Central Terminal still saw the light of day.
In a little more than an hour’s time the Searchers reached the headquarters at Grand Central. The vaulted ceiling reflected the light of day from the surface. This caused many of the Scions to don sunglasses and goggles with tinted lenses.
The Minister sat behind a large table, stacked with electronic monitoring equipment and a computer with a large screen. Other groups of foragers had arrived ahead of Cyclone’s group and were anxious to see what they had found.
“Greetings, Minister,” said Cyclone. “I have a video clip for the main database.”
“By all means, download it, Cyclone,” urged the Minister.
The gray-whiskered man handed an up-link cable to the leader of the Searchers. Cyclone attached it to his cellular radio, and the footage was transferred in a matter of seconds. The Minister enlarged the video to fill the entire screen of his computer and turned it so the people in the spacious chamber could see it.
“Are those the dragons?” asked an explorer.
“I don’t know,” answered the Minister. “Whatever they are they don’t look friendly. It will be bad if these fiery beings move any closer to our tunnels. I suggest we prepare to defend ourselves. These beings appear to express flame on a regular basis. Perhaps water or ice propelled from tanks and hoses will deter them from invading our roads.”
“I agree, Minister,” said Cyclone. “I know there are hoses and portable tanks in the storage rooms. We’ve accumulated quite a few useful items over the years. Let us inspect the stockpiles and determine what can help us protect ourselves.”
“Very well, Cyclone,” replied the middle-aged man. “We’ll ride there and see what we can find.”
The Minister, Cyclone and the Searchers headed to the storage rooms in the lowest basement of the obsolete train station.
Ex heard the sound of dripping water falling from the ceiling as they passed through a descending series of pillared tunnels. He also heard the footfalls of the Searchers echo through the aged passages.
The Searchers reached the bottom of the chambers under Grand Central Terminal. The light of the explorers’ torches shone on a row of storage compartments.
The Minister drew a ring of keys from his travel pack and opened the waterproof lock on the rolling, steel door of a compartment. The door slid upward, and Cyclone looked inside.
There were portable, aluminum tanks small enough for a person to carry and rubber hoses thick enough to deliver pressurized water.
The Minister and the explorers were able craftsmen and they set to work immediately on their fire extinguishing equipment. The Searchers made openings in the tanks with drills and attached the hoses and valves with waterproof seals. They completed their project by the end of the day.
“The reports of these so-called dragons have come to me from different zones within the known network of tunnels,” said the Minister. “I suspect that the hostile creatures are a result of the rampant radiation that remains from the nuclear apocalypse. We have strength in numbers and should make a stand against the fire breathers while we are at our fullest resources.”
“I agree, Minister,” said Cyclone. “Let us return to the location in the Delta Zone where I made the video recording. We should determine what the demands of the dragons are, if any.”
The Searchers made their way to the place where Cyclone’s group encountered the cluster of twelve dragons. The Minister accompanied the group by riding a gasoline-burning go-cart. Once they reached the place where Cyclone made his recording the Minister pressed the kill switch on his vehicle and walked to the turn in the passage.
The strange lights remained around the bend, and they created spiraling patterns on the walls nearby.
“Who goes there?” a deep voice said.
The Minister replied, “I am called the Minister. I am the director of this group of underground dwellers. We depend on these tunnels. You have injured some of my friends. We ask that you cease scorching them when they pass nearby.”
“Come closer, Minister,” answered the voice.
The middle-aged man took a quick glimpse around the corner of the tunnel when the dragons unleashed a jet of fire down the passage. All the Searchers dove to the damp floor as the fire blasted overhead.
When the attack finished, the Searchers in the passageway rose to their feet. The Minister gestured for the group, equipped with water hoses, to douse the dragons. The Searchers did as their leader signaled and ran around the bend with hoses in hand. They opened the valves of their makeshift extinguishers and directed the emerging streams at the twisting mass of reptile flesh.
The dragons bellowed in misery as the cold liquid covered their exposed skin. The creatures attempted to release another blast of fire but the force of the spray from the hoses was too great. The flames emitted by a handful of dragon heads were quickly doused by the group of explorers.
“Ah, the cold is intolerable,” said the center dragon head. “Please, discontinue your counterattack, humans. Make your demands.”
“Leave us in peace,” cried Cyclone. “You have already scorched some of us and we don’t want to be burned in the future.”
“We hunger. Do you have fresh cattle? One or two will do nicely.”
“I’m sorry, we don’t have enough cattle to spare,” replied the Minister. “If that is what you require then we cannot accommodate your needs.”
“So be it, Minister. We remain at odds.
“Call us Dracos. We will await your offering. Until then we will refrain from keeping these passages safe from the dangerous creatures that prowl the toxic lands above. If you are unable to meet our request, then you humans will be on your own. Times have changed. The ruins of the city above teem with life changed by the ancient war. That is why we settled here. There are greater predators above that even dragons fear.
“The nuclear war was a foolish, internecine conflict,” the dragon head declared. “Many people, animals and plants perished. Those that were left mutated at an accelerated rate. What was once a bustling metropolis is now a barren wilderness where only the strong survive.”
“I agree with your analysis, Dracos,” replied the Minister. “My ancestors were some of the few survivors of the war. They sacrificed access to the sun and moon for the dark safety of these tunnels. Other people soon arrived here. Their posterity is represented by the Searchers you see before you today.”
“We are glad that your explorers have found a secure way of life,” said the Dracos. “Regretfully, we must claim sections of these tunnels for ourselves. We will take our leave of this place for now. Be on your guard for we may clash with you again.”
The creatures twisted and rotated their reptilian cluster. The conglomeration of fire breathers slid back into the darkness of the subterranean tunnel.
The Minister turned and addressed his friends.
“That could have gone better. Let us return to Grand Central Terminal, my companions. It seems that it will be but a matter of time before other denizens of the toxic surface appear in our sanctuary. It will be wise to continue the quest for defensive materials. I doubt that we will again be challenged by fire alone.”
The Minister started the engine on his go-cart and sped to the headquarters and Grand Central.
The explorers followed the advice of the Minister and began their journey to their headquarters. They had not gone far when Cyclone heard rustling sounds emanating from peripheral passageways. The noises were mixed with animal-like growls and the scratching of claws on the concrete and brick surfaces.
“What remains of the old city of New York is producing bizarre invaders to our domain,” said Ex. “I think we should maintain our course and report these sounds to the others.”
“I agree, Ex,” answered Cyclone. “We are living in changing times, as did our ancestors to a degree.”
The group continued on their journey and soon reached the large chamber of the central station. They were fatigued from the arduous task and they rested on blankets at the side of the headquarters. Other explorers arrived after Cyclone’s group and also reclined on the sofas and mattresses of the nucleus of their settlement. The large group of people gathered before the Minister’s data station.
Cyclone spoke quietly with the middle-aged leader and informed him of the unusual sounds they heard on their return journey.
“All of you have performed well today. I congratulate you. Our friend Cyclone told me that his band heard suspicious noises coming from some auxiliary routes. We must make note of the unexplored areas. That way my map of the subway system will be as up-to-date as possible.
“If any of you encounter unusual phenomena please notify me at once so that the information can be brought to everyone’s attention.”
“We have also heard unfamiliar sounds from auxiliary tunnels,” said one of the Scions. “I suggest we mark our encounters with newfound species on the computerized map, Minister. That way you will know our precise location if any of us run into trouble.”
“That is a good idea, Raquelle. I will start on engineering an automated monitoring program at once.”
Many of the Scions donned water tanks in preparation for running into the Dracos. The travelers went their separate ways through the network of tunnels.
Cyclone’s group returned to the location in the Delta Zone where the Dracos had been. An hour later they passed beyond the turn in the passage where the Minister had parlayed with the reptilian creatures.
The subway tunnel yawned before the group without end in sight. The tracks in the floor had rusted but still supported the Searcher’s adapted bicycles and skateboards.
Cyclone saw water dripping from exposed pipes in the ceiling.
“This is farther than we’ve ever gone, Cyclone,” said Ex. “We should be careful lest we run into some of the newly-evolved creatures the Dracos spoke of.”
“That is prudent, Ex. All of us will exercise heightened caution from here on.”
The Searchers rode their bikes and skateboards slowly down the dark tunnel. At times Cyclone, Ex and their companions paused to wipe cobwebs from their faces and clothes. After traveling for an hour, the Searchers heard the scratching sounds of an unfamiliar origin.
“Toss some torches forward,” said Cyclone. “Let’s get a look at who or what stands before us.”
Three of the foragers in the group threw their torches into the dark void of the passageway. The tunnel was filled with giant beetles. They scurried on their clicking legs around the entire surface of the cylindrical passage.
“Move back, my friends,” cried Cyclone. “These creatures look dangerous.”
The group did as their leader suggested but two of their number weren’t fast enough. They were consumed by the scrambling mass of the chitinous swarm. The beetles inserted their probosci into the people and drained them of their bodily fluids. The shriveled husks fell to the floor.
Sections of the insects split their shells and extended reflective wings. They flew past the explorers and continued down the hall.
“Run, Searchers!” cried Cyclone.
The explorers turned around and sprinted in the direction from whence they came. A roaring sound penetrated the air.
Ex looked over his shoulder and saw the Dracos appear at the opposite end of the passage. The glistening cluster of dragons spat flame through the passage. The majority of the swarm of beetles was cooked to a crisp in a matter of seconds. Ex smelled the odor of burning insects.
Once beyond the range of their attackers Cyclone activated his cellular radio and addressed the Minister.
“Grand Central, do you read us? This is Cyclone.”
“Yes, I read you, Cyclone. How are things going over there?”
“Not very well, Minister. There is a mass of giant beetles in a place beyond the turn where we confronted the Dracos. Two of my group fell to the beetles and more would have been overcome if not for the attack of the dragons. They appeared in the nick of time.”
“Strange,” replied the Minister. “I didn’t expect the reptilian creatures would be willing to come to the assistance of us humans. Perhaps they act on their own interests. Hurry to the headquarters, Cyclone. We must hold a meeting to determine the next course of action for the underground dwellers. I don’t want to lose any more of you out there.”
The group of foragers sped back along the way they came and reached Grand Central Terminal in an hour’s time. They were surprised to see a large portion of their companions resting in the vaulted chamber.
“Cyclone and the rest of you, come here, please,” offered the Minister.
The younger adults grouped around the data station of their leader.
The Minister again turned his screen so the others could see it.
“I have fine-tuned the cellular mapping program. Now I can monitor your movements throughout the abandoned system of tunnels with heightened accuracy. As the digital map indicates the most recent exploration of our groups has created a semicircle of known passages. I suspect that these routes converge somewhere deeper into the earth, completing the circle at a single location.
“Cyclone, your beetles emerged from the closest known extension to where the center of the ring should be,” continued the gray leader. “You said the Dracos attacked the beetles. They too must have come from this as far unobserved region.”
“The beetles were destroyed by the fire of the Dracos,” Ex declared. “If we devise some flame throwers, it will repel them. The strange creatures we’ve encountered these last few days must have mutated as a result of the nuclear apocalypse that occurred centuries ago. Perhaps one of the old, toxic warheads landed at that dark location and is leaking radioactive waste into the soil.”
“That is a wise assessment, Ex,” the Minister replied. “I have Geiger counters and flame throwers for you explorers to carry. They are compact and shouldn’t hamper your movement. If the alarms tick at a fast rate, return to a safe area.”
“Thank you, Minister,” said Cyclone. “We will investigate the unexplored routes and see if we can determine the source of this burgeoning activity.”
The foragers sped off toward the designated sections of track on the Minister’s computer. They rode for an hour when they came upon the scorched remains of the giant beetles. The travelers passed them by and continued on. The alarms of the Geiger counters ticked at a fast staccato.
Cyclone checked the gauge of his counter. The needle was close to the toxic level but did not pass into the red area.
Ex observed that much of the path was marked with freshly fallen bricks and concrete. The subway route twisted and turned at several points along their journey.
Cyclone’s group reached an opening in the tunnel. They beheld a cavern that couldn’t have been hewed by the architects of the subway.
Stalagmites and stalactites extended from the rocky floor and ceiling of the large chamber. Rivulets of lava oozed from the walls of the circular chasm to form a glowing pool thirty yards below.
An army of beetles skittered in a vortex around the glowing lava.
The foragers ignited their flamethrowers, toasting the beetles that came within range. Despite the efforts of the humans, massive numbers of insects spiraled on the walls and ceiling.
At the center of the chamber floated a massive creature, resembling a jellyfish. The entity was translucent, with internal organs that glowed with fluorescent green, radioactive light.
The gelatinous being extended a set of tendrils to the outer wall and scooped a cluster of unsuspecting beetles. The cord-like extensions retracted and brought the exoskeleton-bearing creatures to its beak-like mouth. The quivering entity communicated with the Cyclone and the Searchers by using a telepathic mind-voice.
'Flee from this place, vertebrates. These tunnels belong to the amoebids.'
The tendrils of the massive, gelatinous life form moved towards Cyclone and his companions. The red-haired man signaled his friends to activate their flame-spewing weapons.
The tendrils drew away from the blast of heat but lingered just out of range.
“Prepare to retreat, Searchers,” declared Cyclone. “Our weapons aren’t forceful enough to eliminate this creature.”
As the humans were about to exit from the strange creature and the giant beetles the Dracos appeared from an opening at the opposite side of the chasm.
The cluster of reptilian creatures separated and flew at the amoebid. They came within the range of the gelatinous being and unleashed a fiery attack. The carnivorous amoebid was scorched severely and shied away from the dragons.
'Do not pursue us, dragons, hummed the being in mind-voice. I am one of many and shall return to this place with a great number of my kin.'
Cyclone and his friends marveled as the translucent creature rose to the ceiling and broke through to the toxic surface.
“Wow!” yelled Ex. “That is a powerful creature.”
The Dracos turned toward the explorers and spoke to them.
“Be careful in this area, humans. There are many of such predators that are looking for a meal. You should return to your home. We claim this area on our behalf.”
“We understand, Dracos,” said Cyclone. “We will go home and inform the other Scions of the events that took place here.”
The Searchers withdrew from the volcanic chasm and informed the Minister of the conflict they saw. The humans mounted their bikes and skateboards and began the lengthy journey to Grand Central Terminal.
The Nile River flowed north to the Mediterranean. It parted the stifling heat and merciless dunes of the Sahara Desert. The river’s abundance of game and arable land attracted the first hunters and gatherers to the fertile banks.
Some came from Jericho while the majority migrated from the vast steppes of Central Asia. The names of their tribes are lost to history. Their civilization is forgotten but their legacy remains.
At first the tribes lived as they had beyond memory. They collected grain and game as they grew in the wilderness. After time they harnessed the water of the Nile through man-made channels and water screws. The women stored seeds for the next year and sowed them in the irrigated soil. They chose only the finest and heartiest wheat plants, creating newer, more resilient strains.
Cattle and wildebeests were taken captive to be slaughtered when needed most. Other herds of beef and goats were allotted for sacrificial tribute to the gods. It was the beginning of man’s adoption of agriculture
The early Egyptians also formed packs of mud, fiber and gravel. The earthen mixtures were left in the sun to dry. The resulting bricks made stronger fortifications against barbarian invasions. They also provided shelter against the elements and storage room for harvested wheat.
It was only a matter of time before the farms and ranches were divided into north and south. Kings rose to manage the vast stores of grain harvested from the irrigated fields. Battles occurred and famines remained. No matter how bountiful the harvest, there were always more mouths to feed and prices to pay.
Priests were anointed and temples built to Amon Re, the sun god and creator of the universe, and Osiris, the falcon king of the netherworld, so that they might maintain the peace of the pharaonic society.
Above all the reign of the pharaohs was influenced by the necessity to be preserved beyond death. Passage from the mortal world marked the opportunity for entrance to the afterlife. There the hearts of pharaohs and commoners alike were weighed by Thoth, the scribe of the gods, in a preternatural scale.
Greater than the tallies of wheat and tributes of temples was the demand for the heart of the deceased to be lighter than one of Maat’s feathers. Maat was the avian, anthropomorphic god of truth and justice. If the test was passed the bearer’s soul would be granted access to the spirit world. To have such a heart required virtue of the owner. If the test failed and the heart proved heavy from misdoing, Ammit, the reptilian devourer of souls, would consume the hearts of the evil people.
From Memphis, in the northern, Lower Egypt to Thebes, in the southern, Upper Egypt, the chariots ran endlessly. They carried news of the latest invasions and rushed to defend the kingdom from marauders originating in Central Asia. The spears and bolt throwers were oiled and kept ready by the pharaoh’s sergeants. Martial law was the norm, and no one dared to oppose the strength of the kings.
Amen was but a young man. His older brother, Tuthmose, was the heir to a lineage extending for centuries. Like their father, Amenhotep III, the siblings enjoyed the thrill of the hunt. The princes, both in their twenties, trotted through the reeds and palms that bordered the great river.
An entourage of slaves and servants followed the heirs. Their duties
were to keep the slings of the princes loaded and their quivers filled with arrows. Other servants used tamed falcons to fly into the brush and cause doves and pigeons to take flight. Their successful expeditions would later be recorded by artisans on ceramic vases and temple
Tuthmose was lithe and athletic, the clear heir to the throne of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Amen, on the other hand, bore the features of Marfan syndrome. His face was elongated and his body oddly rotund. Both of the brothers were excellent marksmen, however, and they competed to see who brought down the greater amount of game before twilight.
At nightfall the servants of the princes ignited torches on the sides of the number of chariots of the hunting expedition. One chariot was piled high with waterfowl shot with arrows and speared peccaries.
“Beware of the crocodiles, my brother,” declared Tuthmose. “They hunt aggressively in the night. We don’t want to provide them with an unsuspecting snack.”
“I agree, Tuthmose,” replied Amen. “The beasts can be voracious. It is time for us to travel inland to our father’s temple.”
The brothers signaled the captain at the head of the convoy to start moving. The lighted chariots headed along a heavily used road into the overlooking dunes. The trail was etched from the passage of the horse-driven vehicles.
The soldiers who accompanied the princes rode in pairs. One rider held the reins while the other a sharpened bronze spear. They were willing to give their lives to protect Tuthmose and Amen. It was understood by all
who traveled in the group that if they returned to the temple without the siblings, they would pay for it with their lives.
Amen and Tuthmose rode through the night. The temple of Amenhotep III stood at the center of Memphis, the city of the living. The streets were alight with oil lamps and torches.
Servants of the Pharaoh carried coffers of fuel oil to keep the hanging sconces burning. Although the booths and tents of the marketplace were closed the city teemed with life.
The air was thick with the odor of incense and cooking food. The chariots of the young nobles passed gatherings of plebeians. The citizens recognized the rippling flags and banners bearing the symbols of the rod and staff. These indicated the military and religious power of the pharaoh. The onlookers bowed their heads in a gesture of reverence.
Memphis was filled with cats. They were treated as bastions of the netherworld. A group of the prowling animals looked up from a plate of food left by a scrupulous shopkeeper. The retinas of their feline eyes reflected the light of the torches, giving them an eerie countenance.
At last the convoy reached the temple of Amenhotep III. Salatis, the head priest and teacher of the young men, hurried down the steps of the pillared structure and embraced the brothers as they disembarked from their chariots.
“Welcome home, my princes. Your father is away. Amenhotep III is conducting negotiations with the Nubians in Upper Egypt. I see that you two had a successful hunt. Amon Re smiles on you. We shall prepare a proper sacrifice to the gods this night.”
Salatis gestured for a group of acolytes to approach. Their number represented the farthest reaches of the kingdom of the father of the princes. Some were Nubian, from beyond the desert of Upper Egypt. Their skin was dark and their hair tightly curled. Others represented the tribes of Central Asia and nomadic hunters from the north.
One acolyte bore the features of the Hyksos. His eyes were dark and his gaze penetrating. His face was aquiline and angular. Much like Tuthmose, the young Hyksos man was taller than average and carried himself with a posture that exuded self-confidence and contemplation.
“Please, students, take the game brought by our princes to the altar of sacrifice.”
The acolytes did as the head priest asked and began to unload the nearly full chariot of its bounty. Tuthmose and Amen accompanied Salatis into the inner sanctum of the Memphan temple. Upon their entrance assistant priests and priestesses added swatches of incense to the flaming sconces that lined the colonnades of the structure.
At the center of the pillared building stood gold-embossed representations of the members of the Egyptian pantheon. These statues, chiseled by the finest sculptors in the kingdom stood in a semicircle before the great, sacrificial sconce at the center of the sanctuary.
Amon Re stood at the center of the group of likenesses. To his left was Osiris. Thoth’s statue was placed to Amon Re’s right.
Salatis addressed the ad hoc manifestations of deities in the temple.
“We offer this game to you, immortal gods, so that we may continue to receive abundant harvests and peace in our kingdom. You have our gratitude, Amon.”
The head priest of Egypt gestured to the acolytes to begin stoking the fire and tossing the game into the flames. The princes and acolytes watched as the day’s catch was consumed by the pyre. The smoke rose slowly to the ceiling of the temple. It followed channels in the angled stone to roll out the sides of the structure and dissipate.
As was commonly seen by the Egyptians, the ruby and sapphire eyes of the god statues ignited with preternatural light. Amon Re, Thoth, Osiris and over a dozen other gods gazed around the Memphis temple. The light from their jeweled eyes generated intersecting beams in the sacrificial smoke.
The group meditated in the soothing emanations of the incense.
Amen and Tuthmose heard the sound of footsteps walking through the central hall of the edifice. They turned and saw their mother, Tiye, and their six sisters as they approached the sanctuary of the immortals.
“You have done well this night, my sons,” said the Queen of Egypt. “You set a good example for your sisters.”
She embraced her sons then addressed Salatis.
“You have my thanks, once more, head priest. The gods are satisfied by your well-conducted, ritual sacrifice.”
“I am flattered, my Queen. All of us await the return of the Pharaoh. He is due to arrive at any time. I understand that his negotiations with the Nubian Kings to the south were fruitful.
“That is what I’ve also heard, Salatis,” replied Tiye. “My sons and daughters will retire to their quarters for the night. I expect our family will be reunited by morning. I take my leave of this temple, now, head priest. We will meet again soon. The time draws near for Amenhotep III and I to procure wives for our sons and husbands for our daughters.”
“That is the truth, Tiye,” answered Salatis. “I will help you both with this nearing task to the best of my ability.”
The head priest noticed the eldest daughter, Kiya, exchanging stares with the Hyksos acolyte.
“What is your name, Hyksos acolyte?” Kiya asked.
“I am Moses,” the servant of the temple answered.
“Is it true that the Hyksos worship one god? It isn’t very much, don’t you think?”
“Yes, princess, my people believe in one, all-encompassing god,” Moses answered. “We call him Yahweh.”
“That is interesting,” replied Kiya. “I’ve been told that the Hyksos tribes of old aided the ancient pharaohs in the construction of the great pyramids. Do you believe this is the case, Moses?”
“I don’t know, princess. My people have traveled in groups over much of the desert in varying waves and directions. There was clearly a diaspora that took place somewhere in Central Asia ages ago. It is possible that a portion of the ancestors of my tribe arrived at the Nile in search of fertile soil and secure domiciles.”
“I concur with your assessment, Moses,” Salatis interjected.
The head priest of the temple used his walking staff to position himself between the two, young adults.
“That’s enough, you two. Both of you have business to attend to. Let us meet here again once that the Pharaoh has returned. Get some rest so that you may be at your fullest faculties on the morn. None of us know what tasks Amenhotep III may place before us.”
The young adults did as Salatis asked and exited from the great temple at Memphis. They retired to separate lodgings and prepared for the return of the Pharaoh.
Tuthmose and Amen were awakened by servants at the dawn.
“Arise, princes,” declared a middle-aged servant. “Your father is in Memphis and requests your presence.”
The brothers were clothed in fine robes and fed a wholesome breakfast. They hurried from their living quarters to the temple of Amon Re.
Amenhotep III stood chatting with Salatis. The Pharaoh wore a tall crown, called a peshent, indicating his command of the two Egypts. This, along with his kohl-darkened eyes and majestic beard gave him a regal appearance. The features of the Pharaoh were much the same as those of Tuthmose, although older. He turned to face his approaching sons and hugged them.
“Greetings, my sons. My trek to Upper Egypt was effective. The Nubian King agreed to support the endeavors of my kingdom in return for a contract of mutual, military support. They also sent a number of their citizens to aid in the daily affairs of this land.”
The Pharaoh gestured to the side of the temple where a gathering of Nubians stood.
Like the Central African acolytes that Tuthmose and Amen had seen previously the Nubian courtesans were tall and muscular. Their dark complexions made their athletic physiques appear statuesque.
Amen was taken by the beauty of a young woman in the group. She was picturesque and had long limbs and a slender neck. The younger of the two princes approached her.
“What is your name, if you please, Nubian princess?”
“I am Nefertiti. My father, Zudan, the king of Nubia, sent me across the great desert as a token of his goodwill toward your northern realms.”
The African princess bowed in a gesture of friendship.
Amen bowed in turn, took her hand in his and kissed it.
“Egypt is honored by your presence, Nefertiti.”
“Thank you, courteous prince,” answered the young lady.
“Let us begin the ceremony welcoming the sun, my friends,” Salatis declared.
Amenhotep III took his place on an ornate dais at the center of the statues of the gods. Tiye, his wife, sat on the right side of the Pharaoh. They signaled Salatis to begin the ceremony dedicated to Re.
The head priest of the Memphan temple put incense into the central sconce and addressed the sun god.
“Amon Re, we thank you for this day. Let your will bring us peace.”
Salatis bowed to the likeness of Amon Re as did the Pharaoh and Queen.
The eyes of the gods remained dormant. This, also, was usual for the dawn ceremony.
The head priest spoke to the members of the royal family in attendance.
“The ceremony is finished. You may conduct your business for the day, your majesties.”
“Thank you, Salatis,” answered Amenhotep III.
He addressed his two sons.
“Tuthmose and Amen, your mother and I understand that you had a successful hunt yesterday.”
“That is correct, father,” answered the elder of the two brothers. “The banks of the Nile continue to prove plentiful.”
“That pleases us,” said Tiye. “Your father has expressed his desire to accompany you on a hunting expedition today.”
“Excellent, mother,” replied Amen. “Let us be on our way.”
The captain of the royal guard approached the two thrones from his station within the colonnades of the great temple.
“The charioteers are ready, your majesties.”
“Thank you, captain,” replied the Pharaoh.
“We will return this evening, Tiye. Perhaps I will catch a hippopotamus.”
“Be careful, my brave men. As you know, the river can be both plentiful and dangerous.”
Tiye gave her husband and sons a farewell embrace.
The chariots of the nobles were ready and harnessed with the finest horses.
“We must be on our way, my people,” said Amenhotep III. “There is a barge waiting for us upstream so that we may focus on acquiring more than the game on the shoreline.”
The Pharaoh and his sons climbed aboard their respective vehicles. The charioteers lashed their horses into full gallop.
Amen marveled at the craftsmanship of the wheeled vehicles. They carried the hunters at a fast pace along the etched trail in the packed sand. In a matter of hours, they reached an ideal bend in the Nile that was known to be a haven for fish, birds and hippopotami.
The royal barge was ready, and the riders guided their vehicles expeditiously up a ramp bridging the shore and the deck of the oared ship.
Servants tethered the horses and chariots in a queue at the center of the watercraft. They then took seats along the sides of the barge and hoisted long oars, ready to row. The captain of the guard signaled to the pilot to draw anchor and head for the shallows at the center of the Nile.
The hunting expedition had cruised for less than an hour when they spotted a cluster of hippopotami feeding on vegetation below the murky surface of the river.
The Pharaoh directed the pilot to draw closer to the shallow section where the large herbivores scooped at roots and foliage. Amenhotep III held a sharp javelin and hurled it at an unsuspecting hippo. It was a large male and the glancing wound caused it to leap out of the water, knocking Tuthmose into the river.
Almost instantaneously crocodiles that had been lying in wait underwater rushed to the flailing prince.
“Tuthmose!” cried Amen “Swim to shore. Let us help you.”
The younger brother moved to dive into the Nile and attempt to free the entangled prince. The Pharaoh and his servants on the barge were quick to restrain the wailing prince and would not let him near the snapping reptiles.
The elder brother struggled with the voracious crocodiles but was unable to swim free of their vice-like jaws. Tuthmose was pulled under the surface by the massive reptiles. The cloudy water roiled with the frenzy of the animals. Blood and torn clothing rose around the hunting boat, but the prince of Egypt did not emerge again.
“Alas, my son is gone!” cried Amenhotep III.
The pilot addressed the Pharaoh.
“Your majesty, I recommend that we head for the shore. We must preserve the life of Amen lest the crocodiles make another attempt on the passengers of this vessel.”
“Yes, you are right, my friend,” answered the king. “Amen is now the heir apparent. We must return to the safety of Memphis while we are able.”
The Pharaoh clung to his rotund son in a protective manner. He directed the young man to stand in the middle chariot at the center of the royal barge.
The men at the oars hastened the craft beyond the hippopotami and returned to the launching place. As soon as the bank was within range Amenhotep III directed the servants to lower the bridge. He lashed his team of horses fiercely as he drove his chariot. The other soldiers were quick to follow their king and they left a trail of dust along the road as they sped toward the city.
Word spread quickly of the death of the Pharaoh’s eldest son. Fishermen and hunters who witnessed the series of events from the shore of the Nile had raced ahead of Amenhotep III to deliver the tragic news to the citizens of Memphis. The streets, which were crowded with merchants and customers on good days, were jam-packed with people anxious to see the returning king.
Soldiers surrounded the royal entourage and formed a wedge within the seething mass of Egyptians. Despite the attempt of the militia to clear a path for the Pharaoh the mob made the journey agonizing.
At last the chariots reached the Memphan temple.
Salatis rushed to the entrance of the structure, knowing that the king would not return to the city so soon unless some mishap had occurred.
“My king, what has happened?” asked the head priest.
The Pharaoh wept and his tears caused his kohl-darkened eyes to produce streams of black down his face.
“Tuthmose is dead. He was knocked into the Nile by a hippopotamus and devoured by crocodiles.”
“That is terrible news,” said Salatis. “The kingdom has suffered a great loss this day. You must bring Amen inside. There is bound to be turmoil in the city as the news of this accident spreads throughout the districts.”
As the Pharaoh spoke with Tiye, his wife, her sobs of loss were muffled by the cries of the crowd outside the effigy-filled temple.
“Salatis, I want to hold a coronation ceremony tomorrow,” said Amenhotep III. “Amen will be a co-ruler with Tiye and I. We must demonstrate the lasting continuity of this family.”
“As you wish, my Pharaoh,” replied the head priest. “I will make the necessary preparations immediately. I understand that this is a trying moment, your majesty, but I advise you to rest today. Your grief may make you ill.”
“Thank you, Salatis,” answered the Pharaoh. “I will do as you suggest.”
The head priest bowed toward the king and called for his acolyte, Moses.
“Moses, please escort Amen to his quarters.”
The Hyksos acolyte emerged from the shadows of the pillared building and put his arm around his prince’s shoulders.
“The Lord tries us in mysterious ways, at times, my prince. Like your father you must rest for tomorrow you shall be made co-ruler of Egypt. This is both a great honor and a heavy responsibility.”
“I agree, Moses. You are a heartening support. Tell me of your Lord. Have you met him?”
“Yes, my prince. He appeared before me as a burning bush. It was only a demonstration of his zeal for the people of the world. Yahweh is everywhere and within all things. This does not mitigate the events that result from free will which all of us possess, of course.”
“That is interesting, Moses. We must talk about this Yahweh again. I think I will follow your recommendation and rest. The throne of Egypt was rightfully Tuthmose’s. Now that he is gone, he would have wanted me to fill his expected role.”
The royal family retired from their administrative duties for the day.
Salatis and his acolytes made the necessary preparations for the coronation ceremony. The guards of the temple continued to restrain the citizens who clambered to gain a view of the bereft king.
Dusk fell and soon turned to night. The moon and stars shone brightly over the city. This did not stop the lamentation of the residents of Memphis.
Throughout the two Egypts citizens of the realm held a night-long vigil in memory of the fallen prince.
As dawn began the acolytes dressed Amenhotep III and his family in their finest robes. The sconces were refueled, and the preparations made for the coronation.
“We are gathered here today to remember our lost prince,” declared Salatis, “but also to celebrate the establishment of a new king. Amen, son of Amenhotep III, have you chosen a name to reflect the honor of your new office?”
“Yes, I have, Salatis,” said Amen. “I wish to be called Akhenaton. I emphasize my following of Amon Re, the creator of the universe and controller of the sun. My brother would not have wanted the kingdom to wallow in loss and regret. I do this with the permission of my father and mother.”
“Very well, Akhenaton,” replied Amenhotep III. “Keep in mind that Osiris, Thoth and the other gods will continue their observance of our affairs.”
“We will be here to help you, my son, whatever name you choose,” offered Tiye. “The duties of the rulers of the two Egypts are weighty burdens, indeed. We will have your throne placed before us so that you will become accustomed to the decision-making process that is our responsibility.”
The Queen of Egypt continued to mourn her lost son as a group of acolytes brought a new throne in front of the two at the center of the gods.
Akhenaton forced a smile as Salatis placed a peshent, similar to the one worn by his father, on his head.
Artisans nearby began immediately to chisel likenesses of the new Pharaoh out of stone.
The barbarian invasion came during the summer solstice. Marcus heard the cries of the tribe’s wolves as the marauders leapt over the outer wall of the Romani camp at Ungar Falls. The aspiring warrior was in his early twenties and had studied swordplay to a degree with his father. Like his father, Marcus had dark-brown hair and a muscular physique.
His parents, Theodorus and Ursula, had both gone to the deep forest with the other tribal elders early that morning. They sought game to be captured and salted for preservation. The abundance of the warm months was shadowed by the scarcity of food in winter.
'It is my responsibility to defend the settlement,' thought Marcus.
He steeled himself for the attack of the nearing barbarians. The invaders sported helmets adorned with ox horns. Some of them wore armor that was a combination of chain mail and embossed leather. As the barbarians closed in upon Marcus, he noticed that a percentage of the marauders had foregone armor altogether. They had painted their faces and torsos with spiraling blue and red designs.
Marcus drew his father’s war hammer, Mjolnir, from the stack of bearskins in his family’s long house. He wielded the weapon with both hands and yelled to the invaders.
“Come forth, foul barbarians! You won’t take what is ours easily. We will stand and protect the lives and artifacts of the Romani Tribe.”
A large Romani man yelled from the long house parallel to the home of Marcus and his family.
“I agree, Marcus,” said Hugo. “You have my support. Let us convince these barbarians that we care as much for our settlement as the elder hunters.”
Hugo was Marcus’ childhood friend. The portly, redheaded Romani hunter stood in a protective stance. Hugo’s weapon of choice was a glinting battle-axe.
The Romani Tribe was a mixture of ethnic groups from the scions of the Magyarsog, to the Macedonians and Gauls. The infiltrators of the village were also diverse in their physical features. Some were tall and muscular with blond beards while others were short and stocky with red moustaches.
The conflict came quickly. A pair of barbarian lancers charged within Marcus’ fighting range. He parried their spears. Marcus swung at the raiders in turn with his fire forged, iron hammer.
He inflicted a deep blow to an invader's left shoulder. The marauder screeched in pain and dropped his weapon in order to apply pressure to the bleeding contusion. Marcus finished him off with an arcing blow to the neck. The infiltrator fell to his knees and died.
The other barbarian lancer trembled and backed away.
“I need help, Teutons,” he yelled. “This man is fierce.”
The invader’s eyes rolled from side to side as he looked for support from his kinsmen. The barbarians were engaged elsewhere and could not heed his call.
The lone lancer fled from Marcus, who panted from the exertion of the skirmish.
Additional raiders were enraged at the death of their kin. They spoke to one another in a dialect unfamiliar to Marcus. It was a Teutonic language.
A trio of them charged Marcus. Despite the efforts of the three older brigands to flank Marcus they found themselves pushed back by a flurry of blows from Mjolnir. Marcus, the aspiring hunter, remembered Theodorus’ teaching and used the wall of his long house to protect his back.
Marcus sidestepped the swords of the hostile warriors. He swung his father’s hammer again as he turned toward the shafts of the blades. Marcus struck the iron weapons of his opponents causing them to shatter. To his surprise the older males ran from the immediate area.
Other long houses lining the falls were set ablaze by flame-tipped arrows launched by the barbarians. The fire and smoke added to the confusion of the resistant members of the Romani Tribe.
'I must free the wolves,' thought Marcus.
Marcus sprinted to the wicker kennel and swung at the knotted gate with his father’s weapon. The wolves, aware of the emergency, dashed out of the opening and tangled with the intruding barbarians. The mossy earth became splattered with human and canine blood.
Marcus scanned his surroundings for the leader of the invaders. He spotted a tall mage dressed in a flowing, crimson cloak covered in cryptic runes. The symbols consisted of intersecting lines and curves. The embroidered characters were rendered with stitches of golden thread. The runes sparkled in the sunlight. They stated the names of gods in the Teutonic pantheon. These included Loki and Set.
The man had a pointed beard and deep-set eyes that glinted within his cowl. The wizard carried a metallic staff that glowed with preternatural green light.
“Seek the iron, my soldiers,” said the mage. “Burn the rest.”
“Yes, Urdon,” answered the majority of the barbarians.
They entered a berserker state and hacked at Marcus’ tribe with renewed fervor. Some barbarians used swords and axes to lop off limbs. Others used lances and the curved blades of double-ended, scythe-like weapons. The barbarians continued their assault of the village of Ungar Falls.
Urdon used his blunt force weapon to guide the movements of the barbarians. In response to the gaunt sorcerer’s illuminated gestures, the barbarians moved in formations controlled by magic. Urdon’s invaders made a semicircle around the edges of the settlement. The eyes of the brigands flared with light. The barbarians charged forward, closing the ends of the semicircle around the burning buildings.
Other residents of the camp, including Marcus’ friend, Hugo, grappled around the long houses with their finely crafted arms. Despite the valiant efforts of the young men, several of the villagers fell to the sophisticated swordsmanship of Urdon’s followers.
The crush of barbarians was too great for Marcus, Hugo and the other members of the Romani Tribe.
The Teutonic warriors yelled a battle cry.
They hewed at the inexperienced residents of Ungar Falls. The younger hunters parried what they could of the flurried attacks of the older men.
“Hold strong, Romani!” cried Marcus. “The hunters in the woods may return soon.”
Several of the defenders fell to the scythe-like blades and twirling hatchets and mattocks of their adversaries. More of Marcus’ friends fought valiantly but were skewered by the superior strength and numbers of the raiders. Dead and dying villagers left pools of blood on the grassy earth.
“Marcus, there are too many of them. We must regroup in the safety of the trees,” Hugo declared.
Marcus watched his red-haired friend dispatch two of the barbarians with his battle-axe. The wild men were overcome by the heavy blows of the Romani man.
Hugo slashed the closest screaming barbarian then severed the head of the other. Hugo was splattered with hot blood.
Marcus was confronted by three bellowing barbarians. He blocked the attack of the closest and dropped to one knee as he spun around and swung Mjolnir in a humming arc. Marcus pounded the barbarian’s left leg at the knee.
The marauder screamed in pain. The injured barbarian hobbled away from the conflict. The other two invaders were ready and rendered a flurried attack with their spinning hatchets.
Marcus parried the multiple blows but was hard-pressed to keep his balance.
A trio of tribal wolves came to Marcus’ aid in the nick of time.
The wolves sank their fangs into the legs of the invaders and locked their jaws. They shook their heads in ferocious death grips. This provided a diversion for Marcus to swing his weapon at the two hostile brigands.
Marcus used Mjolnir to smite one barbarian along the forearm. The enemy of the Romani gasped with the shock of the injury. The blond invader dropped his mattocks and fled from the fighter and wolves.
The other barbarian wasn’t fast enough and took the full brunt of the strike of Mjolnir to the head.
'We are being overrun by these barbarians,' thought Marcus. 'The Romani Tribe can’t afford to wait for the return of the elder hunters.'
“Flee to the woods, my brethren!” Marcus yelled. “Ungar Falls is lost. We must unite with the elders who hunt beyond.”
Hugo and the members of the Romani Tribe that were able followed Marcus’ advice and ran to the dense growth of oaks and pines.
Marcus was relieved to see a number of the unleashed wolves follow their masters in their hasty retreat from the encampment.
Marcus, Hugo and the surviving male and female hunters of the burning settlement were familiar with the crags and dried riverbeds of the forest beyond the tumultuous Ungar River.
The yells of Urdon’s aggressive barbarians were soon muffled by the expanse of trees. The followers of the evil sorcerer did not pursue Marcus and the Romani tribesmen who survived the initial attack.
Marcus took a final look back at the burning camp as he fled. The muscular Teutonic invaders rifled through the embers and ashes in search of iron items. They tossed what they found in a giant crucible at the edge of the conflagration.
Urdon super-heated the iron with a red, energy beam emitted from the head of his staff.
Marcus was afraid to linger and ran into the woods.
Marcus and his comrades traveled along the riverbank for most of an hour. Marcus was the first to reach a clearing. He spotted the experienced hunters who had established a small camp.
Theodorus and Ursula looked up from their cook fire where strips of bear meat were salted and dried on a spit. Theodorus had graying, brown hair and a salt and pepper beard. Ursula was blonde and tall, reflecting her Teutonic ancestry. Marcus’s parents were shocked and dismayed to see their bloody son and the other Romani villagers emerge from the woods.
“Marcus, what has happened?” asked Theodorus.
“Father, the barbarians destroyed our village at the falls. Those of us that could do so retreated to the trees. I freed the wolves and many of them fought valiantly. The ones that lived followed us here. I defended myself as best I could. Here is Mjolnir. I used your war hammer to intercept the marauding barbarians.”
“Thank you, my son,” answered Theodorus.
Theodorus took the weapon from his son. His brow was furrowed with concern for the welfare of his tribe.
“There was a magic user in their midst. They called him Urdon. Have you heard of him?”
“Urdon . . . hmm. That name sounds familiar,” said Theodorus. “Ursula, do you remember if there was an Urdon among the wizards that were cast from the Ebony Tower last fall?”
“I believe there was, husband. This is a tragic day for all of us,” moaned the female hunter.
Hugo addressed Theodorus.
“There were rumors of renegade mages conducting unorthodox sorcery in the Ivory Tower last fall. This magic user has taken his maverick agenda into his own hands.
“They came for our iron,” the red-haired survivor continued. “The wizard controlled the invaders with an enchantment.”
“I have heard of magic users of this persuasion, Hugo,” observed Theodorus. “This bodes poorly for the Romani. We must hold council tonight to organize a militia from our hunting parties and determine the safest direction for the tribe to take. There is no use in returning to the Ungar River. We should plan on settling farther into the trees.”
“Hugo said you fought well, Marcus,” declared Ursula. “I don’t know what your father and I would do if anything happened to you. You should rest while the two of us work with the hunters. We will prepare the game we caught for storage.”
“I appreciate your concern, mother and father,” answered Marcus. “I’ll follow your advice. I could use some time to recuperate. Wake me for the council meeting if I am sleeping.”
Marcus lay on the grass of the clearing and held his arm over his eyes. In a matter of moments, he drifted into a troubled sleep.
Twilight fell across the land and the hunters and survivors of the tribe gathered around a roaring fire. Many of the Romani sharpened swords and arrows. The air was filled with tension and urgency. Their faces were creased with anger and worry.
Theodorus strode through the encampment of tribesmen and women. He awoke his son.
“Arise, Marcus, the time for the council meeting draws near.”
“Yes, thank you, father,” answered Marcus.
The two men marched to the ring of people encircling the council fire.
The faces of the men and women were illuminated with golden light from the flames.
“Let us take revenge for our lost kindred and homes!” bellowed Hugo. “This is not the first time that ill magic has sent forces to destroy us. We should find mages of our own.”
“With your permission, neighbors,” Theodorus declared, “I offer my services as the unofficial leader of this council. Raise your hands if you will allow me to direct the tribe.”
“By all means, Theodorus!” yelled a handful of hunters and gatherers of the Romani Tribe.
A majority of them cheered and raised their hands.
“We cannot afford the manpower to counter-attack the barbarians. I agree with the recommendation of Hugo regarding the issue of acquiring a tribal shaman.”
Theodorus nodded to Hugo.
“We need to find someone who can help ensure the safety of our children and settlement from future infiltration. I also think we should build a barrier around our next encampment. It is wise to make things tougher for the raiders to purloin our iron items. Perhaps this will motivate them to smelt their own tools and weapons.”
The council fire flared with blue and red flames. A deep voice spoke from the darkness beyond the tribal circle.
“You, brave folk are in need of magical assistance. The spirits of the trees informed me of your predicament. This forest emanates ethereal energy to those that care to absorb it.”
A blue-robed mage stepped into the light of the flames and pulled down his hood, making his features visible. His beard was white, and his face wrinkled with age.
“My name is Skjold. I offer my services to you, Theodorus and your Romani Tribe. I am not able to run with you. My legs are old and tired. I can summon a creature that will help, however. He was effective in ages past and will serve you well. He is the Zorlak.”
“Ha!” scoffed Hugo. “The Zorlak is a myth. Such a creature is the stuff of tales told to children.”
“On the contrary, my friend,” answered Skjold. “The Zorlak is real. I will summon him tonight, with the permission of you tribesmen and women, of course.”
“By all means proceed,” answered Theodorus. “You are a trustworthy sorcerer. I recognize you from the winter ceremonies at the Ebony Tower. We can use any help we can muster.”
“Very well,” said Skjold. “I do this to prevent the dominance of evil in our forests.”
He drew a handful of mysterious powder from a sack on his belt and tossed it into the pyre. Blue flames arched from the center of the crackling embers. The elderly mage raised his arms in a gathering posture. He uttered a summoning spell.
A portal opened over the fabric of space near the fire. It extended horizontally and became a purple disc three yards wide. Out of the oval dropped a huddling creature covered in reflective, yellow and red scales.
The Zorlak extended his legs and stood erect. He was seven feet tall. His limbs shook and rippled as his bulky muscles flexed and stretched. The Zorlak had a large head and a set of curving fangs that protruded from his mouth. The creature was amphibious and possessed both gills and nostrils.
“For calling me you have my thanks, Skjold,” rumbled the Zorlak. “Ages it has been since I visited this spatial plane. How may I serve you?”
“These Romani hunters and gatherers have been accosted by a number of barbarians and a mage called Urdon. Their settlement was burned and some of the residents killed. I summoned you to aid in their defense. There is hostile magic running through this section of the forest and I need you to help bring it to an end.”
“Very well, Skjold,” answered the Zorlak. “Do what I can, I will.”
“I take my leave from this place,” said the wizard. “I wish all of you good fortune and will monitor your movements through the trees.”
“Thank you for your support, Skjold,” Theodorus said. “We are indebted to you for bringing this sturdy creature to our aid.”
The blue-cloaked mage bowed and turned into the darkness of the surrounding forest.
“In a neighboring spatial plane to yours my kin reside, Romani Tribe,” declared the Zorlak. “Consists it does of aquatic space condensed around a cluster of stars. Function well we do in both air and water and good swimmers we are. In need of a stronghold you people are. Haphazardly through these woods the barbarians travel and in this clearing bound they are to the presence of your tribe detect. Some construction abilities I have and to move lumber help you I can.”
“Thank you, Zorlak,” replied Theodorus. “We will benefit from your facilities. Go with my son, Marcus, at the dawn. He knows which trees are good for cutting. Do you need a sword and shield?”
“No, thank you,” replied the scaled creature. “My own methods I have of defending myself.”
“I don’t need your help, Zorlak,” Marcus said. “I doubt your power will make much of a difference in the defense of us Romani.”
“Surprised you’d be, Marcus,” replied the Zorlak. “Adept warriors we Zorlaks are, and strong, too. If bear with me you will, sure I am that of my martial prowess convinced you’ll be.”
“Perhaps you’re right, Zorlak,” said Marcus. “I apologize if I offended you. If you’ll excuse me, I need some rest. Wake me if I’m still sleeping at the dawn.”
“No offense taken, Sturdy Romani,” stated the amphibian. “Wake you I will when rises the sun does.”
Marcus rested for a few hours until he was awakened by the morning sun. His dreams had been mixed with vivid memories of the barbarian invasion and concern for the future of the Romani Tribe.
'I'm worried about the safety of my people,' thought Marcus. 'The barbarians came without warning. I hope the Zorlak will help us stand strong in what conflicts may arise. The experienced fighters of our group are skillful. I have confidence in our defensive abilities.'
The Zorlak crouched nearby and was watching him.
“Marcus, on our way let us be.”
“Certainly, Zorlak,” replied the Romani man. “I am armed and ready.”
The two companions marched out of the clearing and entered the old growth forest. The sounds of birds and squirrels emanated from the high branches of the canopy.
Marcus and the Zorlak had not traveled far when they heard the raucous stumbling of a group of barbarians hacking their way through the underbrush.
There were five barbarians. They had no perception of the proximity of the encampment of the elders. The bearded Teutons were taken by surprise by Marcus and the Zorlak. They had just enough time to draw their iron swords when the amphibian engaged them at close range.
The Zorlak used his considerable strength to hoist his two opponents by their necks and bash their heads together. The other three barbarians swung heavy blows at the attacking creature, but his red and yellow scales were impervious to the slashing blades.
Marcus drew his iron war hammer and dispatched one of the invaders.
The Zorlak sprang close to the two that remained and entered a bitter melee. His scales were thick, and he deflected their flailing swords with his forearms. The amphibian counter-attacked with his talon-like claws and fangs.
One raider was gored through the chest and fell lifeless to the ground. The remaining infiltrator screeched in fear and ran in the opposite direction.
“Let us return to camp, Zorlak,” said Marcus. “It is evident that our tribe will not be safe from Urdon and his roaming invaders until the construction of the new stronghold is completed. I am impressed by your prowess in battle. I was wrong about you.”
“So, it seems, my friend,” replied the amphibian. “Your help in that struggle I appreciate. Near-sighted we Zorlaks are. Best in close quarters we fight. Wise it is to your tribal elders inform of the ongoing search of the barbarians for iron and precious metals."
“The population of the Teutonic invaders has grown,” replied Marcus. “The barbarians are in need of iron to mold into weapons and coins. They have plenty of potential recruits to arm and arrowheads to forge.”
Marcus and the Zorlak returned to the camp in the clearing of the deep forest. Marcus notified his father and mother of the battle in the woods.
“Mother and father, I’m afraid that the barbarian that escaped us will soon tell Urdon of our location,” said Marcus.
“If they show up, we’ll be ready, son,” Ursula vowed.
A number of pines and oaks had been harvested and were being cut into planks by Theodorus, Hugo and several others. They used makeshift saws forged and cut from old swords.
“Please, to help allow me,” offered the Zorlak.
“Thank you, large creature,” Theodorus replied.
The Zorlak lifted one of the stacks of planks. He assembled the heavy boards into a square wall seven yards high. The amphibian hammered additional segments of wood in position to form a network of ramps and platforms along the inside walls of the fort.
“Ah, rest I must,” the amphibian sighed. “Ready your fort is to be filled with long houses, Romani Tribe. Hard pressed the marauders will be to destroy this settlement with the same ease that at Ungar Falls they exercised.”
“We are indebted to you, Zorlak,” declared Ursula. “We welcome you to recuperate within these walls.”
“My gratitude you have, courageous woman,” answered the creature. “Up on your offer I will take you.”
The Zorlak walked to a corner of the square stronghold and lay on the grass.
Theodorus and Ursula teamed up with the other hunters and gatherers who hastened to finish the settlement. They began to build the foundations for the long houses within the square.
Hugo, Marcus and the Zorlak dispersed to the outer reaches of the clearing in the forest. They set a circle of watch fires along the perimeter of the opening in the trees. Marcus and his friends maintained a rotating watch through the night. Throughout the settlement the sporadic howls of the wolves seemed to carry an air of caution.
'It is only a matter of time before Urdon and his brigands are informed of our location,' thought Marcus. 'The sole survivor of the ambush we conducted is sure to report back to the barbarians soon.'
The invaders came at dawn. The men and women at the perimeter heard the snaps of broken branches and the rustling of dried leaves in the undergrowth. They ran to the stronghold and blew horns signifying the call to battle.
Marcus and the Zorlak were roused by the alarm.
The Romani Tribe wielded blades and bows in preparation.
Marcus loosed the wolves of the settlement once more and the animals loped into the trees.
The cool, morning air was filled with yells and growls as the wolves contended with their prey. The number of raiders was greater than that of the wolf pack. Three-dozen barbarians emerged from the forest unscathed, with weapons in hand.
Urdon, the sorcerer, marched at the rear of the group. His staff flared with green light.
Through the night members of the Romani Tribe had hastily crafted catapults out of the slender trunks of pine trees. They launched a volley of fiery coals at the barbarians. Three of Urdon’s men were struck by the burning embers and screeched in agony as their leather armor ignited.
Ten of Marcus’ companions released arrows at their adversaries from the ramparts of the tall walls. Five of the hostile barbarians fell to the penetrating, iron arrowheads.
“Cut down an oak!” yelled Urdon. “We need a battering ram.”
“They plan to invade our fort, my friends,” bellowed Theodorus. “Secure and reinforce the gate.”
Romani tribesmen and women laid planks of wood at an angle against the inner surface of the gate. Other members of Marcus’ tribe stood in a line, holding long, sharpened poles. The fighters on the ground were accompanied by additional archers who trained their bows and arrows at the barred gate.
In less than an hour’s time the forces outside the stronghold chopped down a tall oak and set it atop a pair of wagons.
Urdon focused the top of his illuminated, green staff at the ram.
“Struxis!” cried the evil mage.
The battering ram was covered in a resilient sorcery. Spiraling beams of red and green light surrounded the trunk of the massive tree. The raiders ignored the volleys of arrows flying down from above although three more of them were smitten by the high-velocity bolts.
Urdon took a position in the rear as his warriors gathered around their siege machine and drove it into the tall gate. The gates buckled under the first assault but did not break. The oak planks of the resilient doors glowed with the green light applied to the battering ram.
“Steady, my brethren,” yelled Theodorus. “Do not loose your arrows until you have your targets within sight.”
The barbarians at the gate rolled their siege machine back and then pushed it forward in a formidable attempt to penetrate the gates. Despite its reinforcement the oak panels buckled and split under the force of the battering ram. An opening afforded the infiltrators with enough room to enter the fort three at a time.
The Romani archers released their arrows at near point-blank range.
Marcus and the Zorlak pushed their way to the front line and picked up extra, sharpened poles. They joined the charge and yelled a battle cry. Five of the brigands were run through by the Romani tribesmen.
The following wave of raiders pushed their fallen comrades to the sides of the breach in a gristly pile.
Marcus drew his war hammer.
Theodorus wielded Mjolnir and Ursula an iron-tipped lance. They hacked and slashed at their enemies, covering the ground with blood.
The Zorlak spotted Urdon through the defunct gate and used his strength to press through the jagged opening. The creature rushed the sorcerer and rendered a flurry of critical attacks to his person.
Although significantly injured by the claws of the Zorlak, Urdon uttered a spell of counterattack.
Ten circular, red blades appeared. Urdon gestured with his hands and the weapons followed his directions. The blades surrounded the amphibian. The Zorlak tumbled to evade them to no avail. Urdon’s disks created a gyroscopic formation around the Zorlak. The wizard brought his hands together and the disks closed in on the Zorlak. The ten red blades punctured the thick skin of the creature. The air was filled with the sound of tearing sinews and cracking bones.
“Arrgh, hurts that does!” yelled the Zorlak.
He was impaled through the chest and back. The scaled being was overcome by the pain of his injuries and slumped unconscious within Urdon’s crushing sphere of magic force.
Urdon succumbed to his injuries and fell dead to the earth. The red sphere vanished but it had taken its toll on the creature.
The Zorlak collapsed upon his release and oozed purple blood from his wounds. His breathing was shallow.
The Romani Tribe made short work of the remaining barbarians. The handful that lived witnessed the destruction of their comrades-in-arms. They fled to the trees wild with fear.
“Zorlak!” cried Marcus. “Hold on. We’ll bring you inside.”
The hunter ran to the side of the tall creature and tore his clothing to make bandages. He pressed his hands to the wounds in the amphibian’s chest but was unable to stop the arterial bleeding.
Ursula and Theodorus came to the side of their son and his friend.
The wounded amphibian regained consciousness and spoke.
“Nothing you can do for me there is, Marcus. Come my time has.”
“Your work here is done, brave Zorlak,” said a familiar voice.
Skjold appeared from the woods nearby and addressed the group of fighters.
“This creature will not live long if he stays in this spatial plane. I must send him to his home. There he will be recharged by his kin. Please, Marcus, step away so that I may open a spatial portal.”
“Goodbye, my friends,” whispered the Zorlak. “Return home now I must.”
The Romani hunter and his parents stepped away from the dying amphibian.
Skjold summoned a spatial portal.
A purple oval opened in the fabric of space and descended downward until it passed over the Zorlak.
Skjold’s portal contracted then vanished entirely. The creature was gone.
“Thank you for saving him, Skjold,” stated Marcus. “We wouldn’t have been able to stop Urdon and the barbarians without him.”
“You’re welcome, Marcus. I must retire to my tower. I will be watching you, Romani Tribe. One never knows when ill magic may return to these woods.”
The aged mage smiled and turned to the woods. In a moment he vanished into the dense growth of the oak and pine trees.
Marcus hugged his parents and the trio of hunters strode to their new stronghold. They began the arduous process of repairing the ruptured gate and completing the construction of the long houses within.
The alarm came early in Officer Stan Norris’ shift.
“Code 3 alert. Car 31, proceed to the designated location.”
Code 3 meant someone was intoxicated in public. Stan knew that this could be dangerous because of the arcane abilities of many citizens.
“I read you, headquarters. I’m on my way.”
The engine of Stan’s patrol car growled as he pressed the accelerator to the floor. Stan activated the siren and emergency lights as he sped along Sunset Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles. He drove a black and white, Crown Victoria sedan.
The year was 2650.
'Things aren’t the same as they were before the revolution,' Stan thought. 'The street mages changed everything.'
Stan saw citizens, in all walks of life, dressed in an avant-garde manner. They strolled along the boulevard in the early afternoon. The people turned their heads to the source of Stan’s siren and stood on the sidewalks.
Stan struggled against the “magic ceiling.” This was a slang term for the unfair promotion of workers in the new age that possessed performance-enhancing, magic abilities.
Stan turned a corner and reached the destination marked on his navigation screen; a posh nightclub called Houdini’s. He exited his vehicle and unstrapped his stun gun. The magazine was armed in sets of three charges, one for each of the three primary colors. This enabled Stan to bring down a shielded street mage of any persuasion, red, blue, yellow or any combination thereof.
Dozens of people ran from Houdini’s, screeching in fear. The sound of clattering tables and breaking glass emerged from within.
The muscle-bound bouncer at the door gestured for Stan to enter. The bouncer’s name-tag said “Mike.”
“We’ve got a real wild one in there today, Officer. We’re glad you got here as soon as you did. Spike is known to be rowdy, but never like this. He drank too many tornadoes and is summoning pixies and miniature dragons.”
“Thanks for the info, Mike,” Stan replied. “I’ll take care of this.”
Mike patted Stan on the shoulder and pulled back the rope barrier.
Stan held his stun gun with the barrel pointed upward as he entered the main dance floor at Houdini’s. Stan watched in amazement as two winged pixies poured a glass of sherry for a drunken man who sat on one of the tall stools lining the bar. He kept his balance by leaning on the bar with his folded arms.
Mike’s warning was accurate.
Stan spoke just as the leather-jacket-wearing man pressed his filled glass to his lips.
“You must be Spike.”
“And what of it?” answered the tough-looking, blond street mage.
“I received a report that someone is disturbing the peace here. Did you summon these pixies and dragons, Spike?”
“Yes,” Spike replied. “They are my friends. I was lonely. Don’t you find them amusing?”
“Yeah, they’re real cute,” said Stan. “I’m afraid they have to go, Spike. Are you going to send them back to their plane of origin or do I have to take you in?”
Stan watched the winged pixies as they formed a rotating halo around their summoner. The petite dragons had discovered a half-full pitcher of beer and took turns dipping their heads in the foamy, alcoholic contents.
Stan looked at the overturned tables and broken glass on the floor.
“What happened to the furniture here, Spike?”
“He got upset and sent them flying when I told him he’d had enough to drink for today,” said the bearded bartender.
“My name is Rob.”
“I see, Rob,” answered Stan.
Stan turned his attention back to the inebriated street mage.
“Are you going to pay for this mess, Spike?” asked Stan.
“Sure, why not?” the sorcerer slurred.
Spike pulled a reflective money card from a pocket in his leather jacket and handed it to Rob.
“Thanks, Spike,” said Rob. “You’d better be on your way.”
“Aw, come on, Rob. Let me get one for the road.”
“One for the road...One for the road,” sang the flying pixies.
Stan waved his hand near the dragons. They took no notice of him and continued their process of consuming the beer in the pitcher.
“Sorry, Spike,” answered Rob. “You’ve got to go now.”
“What? I won’t stand for this! I know my rights.”
Spike rose to his feet and backed away from the bar. The frustrated street mage uttered a shielding spell.
He was covered within a humming, red ethereal force field. He pounded the bar with his fist.
“The Sanguine Acolytes will hear of this. I answer to Cthulhu and no one else.”
Stan drew his stun gun and set the magazine to red. He fired a shot at Spike in near point-blank range. The red stun bolt penetrated Spike’s makeshift shield and attached its hooks to the blond man’s chest.
Spike was overtaken by the forceful electric charge and fell to the floor. The street mage shook in a series of convulsions. His heels beat a staccato rhythm on the beer-stained floor. Stan pressed a button on his stun gun, deactivating the electric charge. The red sphere of energy dissolved.
Stan straddled the incapacitated street mage and handcuffed him.
“All right, let’s go Spike. A couple of days in the cooler should dry you out.”
Stan brought Spike to his feet. The disoriented street mage raised his bound hands to his brow.
“Ouch, my head! How many volts are in that thing?”
“Fifty-five thousand,” answered Stan.
Stan took Spike by the arm and guided him toward the exit.
“Just a moment, Stan,” said Spike.
Spike addressed the pixies and dragons.
“So long, my friends! I must go and can’t take you with me.”
The street mage gestured toward the small creatures and enchanted a dispersal spell.
Stan watched as the miniature dragons and pixies passed through a small portal to Primordia, their plane of origin. The portal closed upon their passage, leaving the bar strangely quiet.
Stan escorted Spike to the back seat of the patrol car. The street mage got in and Stan closed and locked the door.
Stan heard the wail of the siren of another police cruiser permeate the air. The lights of the arriving police car flashed on the brick walls of a cross street as it turned onto Sunset Boulevard. The siren was turned off and a helmeted officer stepped out of the vehicle. The officer was female, and Stan recognized her.
“Hello, Jocelyn. How have you been?”
“Fine, Stan. I hear you’ve got a disturber of the peace on your hands. Do you want me to sedate him?”
Jocelyn Savage took off her helmet and glanced into the rear section of Stan’s car. She had brown hair and a pretty face. Like Captain Bill Mayweather, their supervisor, Jocelyn was a futurist. She was heavily decorated for pre-crimes she prevented from coming to fruition.
“Thanks. I don’t think sedatives are necessary in this situation. I was just about to take Spike here downtown. You’re welcome to follow us if you so wish.”
“Sure, why not. I’ve been thinking. With your marksmanship and my prescience, we’d make a good team. We should bring it up with the Captain.”
“I’ll consider it,” replied Stan. “We should get going. Spike mentioned the Sanguine Acolytes and Cthulhu. This faction of devious street mages is growing. I should mention it to the Captain.”
“Good idea. Let’s go,” said Jocelyn.
The two officers got into their vehicles and headed for their headquarters. They drove beyond Sunset Boulevard and reached the district station.
The crowd before the booking counter was large. It contained a variety of misfits with tattoos and body piercings escorted by Los Angeles Police Department officers.
“Hey, man, how long is this gonna take?” asked Spike.
The street mage had recognized several of the prisoners in the mass of people and chatted with them. After more than an hour of waiting Stan and Spike made it to the front of the counter. The sergeant at the computer entered the street mage’s name and data into the system and gestured toward the holding tank.
Stan opened the door of the cell and guided Spike inside. Stan closed and locked the door.
Captain Mayweather was standing nearby and approached Stan. The Captain was a tall, gray-haired man who spoke with a Southern accent.
“Hi, Stan. Can I have a word with you?”
“Sure, Bill. What’s on your mind?”
“The Sanguine Acolytes and their so-called leader, Cthulhu. Their numbers are growing at a faster rate than we were previously aware. For some unknown reason this area of LA teems with magic forces of a variety of persuasions. Let’s step into my office. We can use the privacy.”
Stan followed the lead of his supervisor and entered Bill’s office. He was surprised to find Jocelyn sitting in one of the chairs of the captain’s office.
“Hi Stan, long time no see,” said Jocelyn.
“Hello, Jocelyn,” Stan answered.
He sat next to her.
Captain Mayweather addressed the two police officers.
“As you may have guessed by now, I want you two to work together on the streets of Los Angeles. Find out what you can about the Sanguine Acolytes and their hierarchy of adherents.
“I want to have you take this project to task. Both of you are adept officers in the field and have unique methods of securing the peace. We need to find new ways to police the district and bring down those who perpetrate or conspire to perpetrate our laws. Do you have any questions?”
“Yes,” replied Jocelyn. “Will you download files of known members of the Acolytes to our car?”
“Certainly,” answered the Captain. “Take some time to familiarize yourselves with the names and faces of your racketeering suspects. Let’s meet here again in a week’s time. Both of you have my thanks. That is all.”
The two officers shook hands with the Captain and exited from his office.
“That went well,” said Jocelyn. “I think we’ll make a great team, Stan. What do you think?”
“I agree. I regret that I don’t have magic abilities like you and the Captain. I’m willing to contribute to our undertakings as much as I am able.”
“That’s all that anyone could ask. Let’s go to our car and study the file on the Sanguine Acolytes. I want to get a closer look at the suspects in question.”
The two friends walked to Car 31. Stan opened the door and sat behind the wheel. As soon as he turned the key in the ignition a digital voice said, “New suspect data successfully downloaded from headquarters.”
Jocelyn looked at the computer screen built in the dashboard of the patrol car. There were photos of over a dozen suspected members of the Sanguine Acolytes. Stan recognized Spike’s picture among the group.
“Ah, there’s a familiar face,” he said. “He’ll be seeing the judge in a few hours. I’m sure Spike will think twice before getting so inebriated again.”
Stan drove Car 31 out of the parking structure and onto the street. He turned onto Sunset Boulevard and again saw the mass of wild-looking people that crowded the sidewalks. Many had fluorescent hair styles raised tall with styling gel and blow-driers.
“Stan, I’m getting a bad feeling,” said Jocelyn. “I haven’t felt like this since the riot last year.”
Jocelyn held her head in her hands and moaned, “I fear something terrible is about to happen. We should get to the Chinese Theater as quickly as possible.”
“What is it, Joce, another riot?”
“I’m not sure, Stan,” she answered. “I detect the presence of a mage transformed by arcane sorcery. He’s become a bastion of magic drawn from a dimension parallel to ours. It could be Cthulhu, the so-called leader of the Sanguine Acolytes.”
Stan activated the police radio frequency and spoke into the microphone.
“Headquarters, this is Car 31. I’m here with Officer Savage. She says she senses a potential disturbance at the Chinese Theater.”
“Thanks, Car 31,” replied the dispatcher. “We’re notifying the other officers in your vicinity. Proceed to the theater. They will meet you there.”
“We read you, headquarters,” said Stan. “Over and out.”
Stan activated the siren and emergency lights. The traffic on the street was a web of bottlenecks and collisions. Drivers did what they could to clear the way for the patrol car. Stan wove his vehicle through the mid-town traffic and soon reached the Chinese Theater.
Stan and Jocelyn watched citizens, many of them tourists, run in several directions from the Chinese Theater. A sphere of purple energy, five yards in diameter, rose above the escaping people.
Within the translucent barrier hovered a tall, winged humanoid. His head was like that of an octopus, with triangular irises and a set of eight tentacles protruding over his maw. The mage had a pair of leathery wings extending from his back. These he flapped within his spherical shield to rise over the frightened people.
The police officers and civilians in the vicinity heard a telepathic, mind-voice resonate from the mage.
'I am Cthulhu. I have awakened from my slumber. It is wise for you creatures to give me homage.'
Stan stopped the police car at the side of the street.
Jocelyn stepped out of the vehicle and grabbed the crowd-control gun from its place between the two front seats. She noticed that many of the people in the street held their hands to their ears to stop the voice of the hostile mage. Their efforts were in vain.
'I claim this structure for my temple. From this point let it be known as the Temple of Cthulhu.'
Some of the street mages attempted to thwart the turbulent mage with magic of their own. They unleashed electric bolts of a variety of colors that clung to the purple sphere. Cthulhu shook them off easily.
Jocelyn aimed her shotgun at the chaotic mage and yelled.
“Cthulhu, you must stop your disruptive activity.”
'Who are you to disturb my arrival to this new age of magic?'
“I am Officer Savage. This is your final warning.”
Stan crouched behind his open door and trained his stun gun at the disruptor. He addressed Cthulhu.
“Officer Savage is serious, Cthulhu. Refrain from your hostile actions or face the full force of the LAPD!”
The mollusk-headed wizard turned toward the sound of Stan’s voice.
'And who might you be, creature?'
“I am Officer Norris. Officer Savage speaks the truth. Stop your disruptive conjuring before you are taken down.”
'Nonesense!' replied Cthulhu. 'This is the dawning of a new age for my Sanguine Acolytes and me. We are the authorities to be reckoned with in this populous flood basin. Your projectile throwers are useless against us.'
Half a dozen patrol cars rolled into the area around the theater.
Cthulhu flapped his wings forcefully. His shield of purple energy rose above the rooftops of the bustling metropolis. The anthropomorphic sorcerer gestured downward, sending two red coils of electricity around a pair of tall palm trees. The coils gripped the trunks of the two trees and ripped them from the ground. The trees were launched into the air then plummeted to the street, crushing a pair of patrol cars and the officers inside.
Stan, Jocelyn and the surviving officers opened fire on Cthulhu. The bullets and shot were deflected by Cthulhu’s powerful barrier. Cthulhu used his supernatural reflexes to grab Stan’s stun bolt. The electricity from the charge sparkled as it traveled up the large humanoid’s right arm. It covered his body with arcs.
Cthulhu laughed and extended his tentacles over his maw. He spoke in mind-voice to the humans below.
'Ah, how refreshing that is. Since my era of dominance over the Hittites I have not felt such a charge.'
Stan looked down at his stun gun. To his dismay its screen indicated that the battery was drained. Stan dropped the obsolete weapon and drew close to Jocelyn.
“We should fall back from this offensive. Our weapons have no destructive effect against this monster.”
“I agree, Stan. We should prevent any more casualties in this conflict.”
Jocelyn opened the trunk of their patrol car and withdrew a megaphone. She addressed the crowd of onlookers and street mages.
“Depart immediately from this area, citizens. Your lives are in imminent danger.”
The people that remained in the area turned and ran upon Jocelyn’s order.
Stan’s communicator beeped as it received an incoming call.
“This is Stan,” he said into the microphone.
“Stan, this is Captain Mayweather. I’ve been watching the scenario through the cameras on our cars. I order you to disperse. This sorcerer is the worst yet. Contact me again once you and the other officers have secured a one-mile perimeter around the Chinese Theater. Over and out.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Stan. “Did you hear our order, Joce?”
“Yes,” she answered. Jocelyn spoke into her communicator, “All right, people. Please disperse from the area. It is no longer safe. I repeat, disperse from the area.”
Jocelyn grew strangely pale and sat down quickly in the patrol car. Stan and the surviving officers shifted their patrol cars into reverse. They turned and drove to the mile perimeter where they blocked the streets and ignited signal flares at the intersections.
Stan guided the masses of people as they ran from the flaring purple lights that expanded to surround the entire Chinese Theater. Many of the citizens spoke into communicators, describing the events taking place and taking pictures with their micro-cameras.
“Jocelyn are you okay?” asked Stan.
“I’m all right, I just felt drained for a moment,” she replied.
“Do you think this perpetrator is the same Cthulhu that Spike mentioned?” Stan queried.
“It’s a strong possibility, partner. My prescience is highly active today. This section of Los Angeles is still in danger. I perceive a special focus of malevolence toward us magic users. I have heard mention of borrowers. These are sorcerers that drain the arcane energy of those who would resist their intentions. If Cthulhu is such a borrower, we are in for a serious conflict.”
Captain Mayweather arrived at the perimeter and walked over to Stan and Jocelyn.
“I overheard your conversation. Your presumptions are accurate. Several of our mage-police have fallen to a draining force emanating from the maverick mage, Cthulhu. This entity possesses a great degree of energy. I advise you to stay here, Jocelyn. Your prescient abilities may be tapped by Cthulhu and used against us.”
“I take your advice seriously, Bill,” she replied. “I will remain here, in the perimeter. Perhaps we can have Stan conduct reconnaissance on our behalf. Are you willing to observe and possibly contend with Cthulhu, Stan?
"There are several other non-magic-using officers that can form a Special Weapons And Tactics team. What do you think?”
“I’ll do my best, Sir,” Stan answered. “When do we begin?”
“As soon as you officers fill the armored transport vehicle.”
Stan grouped together with a dozen other officers that had not been changed by the magical revolution. They donned dark blue, bulletproof vests and helmets. Stan and the others took high-velocity assault rifles from the gun rack.
A pair of the officers sported stinger missile launchers.
Stan forced himself to breathe deeply as he and his comrades crowded into the personnel carrier.
Jocelyn and Captain Mayweather gave the thumbs-up sign and closed the rear door.
The driver stepped on the accelerator and the vehicle headed into the abandoned area cordoned off by the police.
Stan soon saw the purple spheres generated by Cthulhu. They had grown in size and thickness since the initial conflict with the LAPD. The vehicle rolled to a stop about five hundred yards from the Chinese Theater.
Stan saw that a large portion of theatergoers, numbering over a thousand, had become trapped within the building. They now lumbered around the structure with pallid skin and eyes that rolled white under the influence of the evil magic. The captured citizens were directed by iridescent beams of magic exuded from the gesticulating arms of red-cloaked mages.
“Those magic users must be the Sanguine Acolytes,” said Stan.
Stan realized that the people trapped in the Chinese Theater had become zombies from Cthulhu’s magic. They walked aimlessly with their arms extended before them. Stan heard their cries, which were a monotone sound.
Stan and the other SWAT officers exited the personnel carrier and pushed their way through the crowd of zombies. The purple lights of Cthulhu’s magic surrounded the building. The evil, anthropomorphic mage had made his way into the theater.
Stan’s team of officers opened the central doors and carefully deployed their forces into the building.
Cthulhu hovered over the center stage with a dozen of his Sanguine Acolytes standing in stasis before him. Violet light ran from each of the foreheads of the mages to the sphere which protected Cthulhu.
“Cthulhu, this is the LAPD,” yelled Stan. “You are ordered to stop your conjuring. Consider yourself under arrest.”
'Ha! How amusing! You clearly have no grasp of the magnitude of the power that stands before you. My Acolytes eliminate these inferior meddlers.'
The Sanguine Acolytes turned from the energy beams that coiled to their foreheads. The red-cloaked mages gestured at the mass of zombies in the theater. The enchanted civilians marched toward the group of officers. Before the pallid thralls reached the police, the officers fired weighted, metallic nets over the crowd.
Stan and his companions activated electric charges from batteries they carried.
The shocked zombies fell in a broad swath before the Sanguine Acolytes.
This gave Stan and his comrades the opportunity to fire their magic-piercing ammunition at Cthulhu and his evil mages.
The anthropomorphic mage was unaffected. His acolytes fell to the high-charged projectiles. They shook involuntarily on the floor of the theater, then, laid still. Stan used an electronic device to quickly clamp plastic cuffs around the wrists of the comatose zombies and mages.
Cthulhu tore the electronic leads from his chest and issued a draining beam at Stan. The policeman, who was not a mage, stood unaffected.
Stan continued his process of securing the zombies and suspects.
'Argh! This is intolerable!' Cthulhu yelled. 'You creatures have no idea who you’re dealing with. I call on you, Father of Darkness, to grant me the power to bring your wishes to fulfillment. Nyarlhothep!'
Stan watched in awe as green beams of light emerged from a spiraling portal that opened before the stage of the theater. The gateway continued to unfurl until it was ten yards wide. A pair of gargantuan gnarled hands reached through from the starry space on the other side. They captured Cthulhu in a vice-like grip. The tentacled arch mage was pulled into the dark dimension despite his struggle to resist.
'Ours is the realm of repose and dream, My Son.'
A resonating mind-voice boomed in the heads of Stan and the other people present.
'You have toyed with these mortals long enough. Join me in the sleep of ages. When our time is near, we will know it. Humans we leave you for now. Beware that your magic abilities have grown. The time draws near for the return of Cthulhu and me. We are watching you.'
“Likewise, Nyarlhothep,” Stan yelled. “If you attempt to disturb this civilization you will be held to answer for your misdeeds.”
'So be it, answered the disembodied mind-voice. Until then, goodbye, Mortal.'
The green-rimmed portal shrank and then vanished entirely.
Stan’s fellow officers finished arresting the last of the Sanguine Acolytes. They escorted the perpetrators to a gathering of paddy wagons.
Stan saw Jocelyn and Captain Mayweather among the reinforcements that hurried to the theater at the disappearance of Cthulhu’s purple spheres.
“Stan, what happened?” asked Jocelyn.
“Cthulhu was unable to stop us from rescuing the zombie civilians and stopping the Sanguine Acolytes. Nevertheless, all of us should remain watchful. Cthulhu was taken to a magical dimension by a stronger entity called Nyarlhothep.
"The magic of Los Angeles is growing day by day. Let’s get some rest. I’ve seen enough action for today.”
“Go ahead, Stan,” chuckled the Captain. “Take the week off, if you want. You and the other officers did a great service to the people of this city. You have our thanks. It seems that not all of us were meant to be magic users.”
The three friends made their way back to the secured perimeter and their patrol cars.
It was the year 1190.
The crusades drove soldiers and pilgrims across the Christian kingdoms. They sought the city of Jerusalem and the relics they hoped it contained.
King Richard the Lionheart held the greatest influence over the court of England. He sensed the wishes of his people and the other European kingdoms to claim the ancient city from the Muhammadans on the behalf of the followers of Christ.
The Christian forces grew since the invasions of the Viking Age centuries beforehand. New orders of knights, including the Knights Templar took a semblance of control over cities where the Norse warriors had raided, plundered and later founded villages.
Spain and the greater Iberian Peninsula, as well, was claimed by Christians under the leadership of El Cid. The Spanish knights and their adherents joined forces with the crusaders on their trek to the Holy Land. They, too, were focused on retrieving the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant and the True Cross.
Many Hebrews and Armenians had gone their separate ways since the fall of the Roman Empire and later Constantinople in Turkey. Only pockets of them remained in Jerusalem, where the central synagogue was ransacked and demolished years earlier.
King Richard's forces were ready. The bearded king saw the ambition and zeal in the eyes of his subjects. The Vikings had forced their societies to secure their land with feudal lords, mounted warriors and defenders of the realm.
Richard knew that there were fortified castles, now. The peasants and villagers throughout the burgeoning kingdoms followed the tolls of the Angelus, where they might find sanctuary in the event of another invasion by a hostile force.
The road to the Holy Land was cumbersome, however, and even with substantial wealth to commandeer ships loaded with military cargo the infantry had many miles to march. The foot soldiers knew it might be months or years before they could return home.
Richard consulted with Portuguese sailors along with Spaniards, Frenchmen and Italians. Under the guidance of the Templar banner, which bore a red cross over a white background, the diverse forces traveled from England, France and the other Christian lands. Many of the conscripts were impoverished and marched without shoes or the protection of chain mail armor.
There was meat, though, and it was more than what the ancestors of the crusaders had to eat during the deprivation of the early Middle Ages.
[To be continued.]
Zanathar was an experienced wizard, or so he thought. He reclined in his study and stoked the embers in his fireplace.
It had been a long day, for the red-cloaked mage had conducted research and magical experimentation for several hours without pausing to rest or recharge his arcane faculties.
Among his scrolls and books his familiar, Archimedes, a young dragon, chirped for food.
'Thanks for your patience, Archie.' Zanathar projected. 'You have become accustomed to my idiosyncrasies since your hatching. Today was busy but tonight I will let you fly. There will be a full moon and plenty of prey for you to hunt in the silver light.'
Archimedes gave a high-pitched chirp in reply and emanated an aura of understanding to his bearded, human friend.
Zanathar opened a jar of fireflies from its place on a nearby shelf and the glowing insects were summarily devoured by the wizard's companion.
'That should hold you for a while, my friend. The twilight is near and you will soon have many moths and rodents to eat in the moonlight.'
Zanathar used melted wax to seal the last of his freshly penned scrolls and store them in a satchel for eventual distribution to other prominent magic-users throughout the realms of Xanadu.
The other, distant, younger wizards looked to Zanathar for his notes regarding alternate regions of magic and the forces that bound numerous creatures and environments to the hub of worlds. Most of the aspiring adepts considered Zanathar to be a potent director of his star castle. They were too young to realize that Zanathar was not the first wizard to manage magical affairs from the massive, multi-tiered fortress of solitude and divination.
The flames under his mantle grew and twined over the smoldering oak logs.
Zanathar was warmed by the hearty fire and strength returned to his arms and legs. He took a drink of mead from his ceramic mug and chewed a piece of dry-cured meat.
“I will stay, here, tonight, Archimedes.”
This time Zanathar spoke in words to his wyvern familiar.
“There will be no shape-shifting or cloak of invisibility. I need my rest and will follow your view from this star castle as you ride the evening wind.”
Archie chirped in agreement and flapped his crimson wings as he leaped to the nearest windowsill. The eyes of the young dragon flared with expectation as the last rays of the setting sun shone from the edge of the horizon.
Zanathar drew his cloak about himself and curled up for a nap as he gestured to Archimedes to be on his way.
The wyvern sprung at once into the air beyond the star castle and spread his wings wide as he soared with the breeze.
To the wizard's surprise his familiar focused on a mysterious traveler approaching the foot of the star castle.
'A visitor at this hour? This castle is not easy to find. Something must be amiss for anyone to petition me here. I must withdraw the guardians.'
The guardians were constructs created by Zanathar himself to protect the castle from unwanted invasions and rival sorcerers. They were a formidable force and, over the years of the fortress' occupation by the red-cloaked mage, no one had compromised their security.
The guardians were not flesh-and-blood creatures and they lumbered through the halls and tunnels of the castle as heavily-armored metallic automatons. Similar to the case with Archimedes, Zanathar was able to see through the mechanical eyes of the guardians and direct their actions through telepathic projections from his study at the top of the tallest of the many towers.
The stranger in question was dressed in a dark cloak and his face was covered by a black, leather mask. He led a pack horse with a tether and paused as he crossed the final bridge before the primary gate. He looked up at the towers of the star castle and its Gothic architecture and continued on his course.
The fortress was a bastion of magic. Arcane energy held it in place just as mortar and steel would do so for a similar structure. External buttresses and sparkling, electric conduits supported the many platforms that formed the base of the levitating, astral towers.
The hulking guardians stood before the gate of the star castle. They received the signal to withdraw from their master far above and quickly complied with Zanathar's wishes.
The visitor tied his horse to an obsidian column nearby and ventured within.
The wizard continued to allow the stranger to advance and prepared to wait several minutes for the mysterious traveler to scale the numerous flights of stairs leading to his study chamber.
At last Zanathar heard the sound of rapping emerging from the closed doors of his sanctuary.
“Enter, please!” he boomed.
The door knob turned in its housing and the visitor stepped within.
“You must be Zanathar. Greetings.”
The masked and hooded stranger lowered his cowl and removed his disguise. The angular, bearded face of a Githyanki mercenary stood before the wizard.
“I am Tehv'in, a dragon rider from the Prime Material Plane. Perhaps you have heard of me, reputable wizard.”
“Not particularly, servant of Vlaakith, but I know of your people. Something must be amiss for you to have invested your time and energy in locating me.”
“That is the truth, Zanathar. The Githyanki treaty with Tiamat and the red dragons is in jeopardy. The masses of illithids and their mind flayer commanders have put pressure on the dragons to depart from the plane that perpetuates their immortality.
"I am a diplomat, sent from the great Githyanki city of Tu'narath. It is the request of my people that you contact the One.
"Vlaakith wishes to extend her range of influence to the Void but is frowned upon doing such by pirates and astral guardians, alike. We Githyanki are not inclined to pursuits of avarice and ambition without regard to the balances of power that have stood so long in the city of Sigil and its interconnected network of worlds.”
“That is profound information, Tehv'in,” replied Zanathar. “Vlaakith apparently seeks the completion of her godhood after so many years of functioning as a granter of wishes and lesser, arcane favors.
“There are a few courses of action that I may employ to lend a hand in the power struggle of which you are speaking. Before I continue, let me ask how it was that your found this place?"
“There are a number of cloaking and shielding cantrips of my own device that seemed to take no notice of your approach to this star castle.”
“Perhaps that question could better be answered by Vlaakith herself. She has not concealed her surveillance of you, here. She is a wily demigod and cares little for manners or diplomacy when there are entities such as yourself that may constitute potential opposition to her agenda.”
“Very well,” replied Zanathar. “I have lived for some years, now, and should not be surprised that my reputation reaches far in this plane and beyond.
"You must be tired, Tehv'in. Let me offer you sustenance and a place to sleep. Your journey to my star castle must have proven draining and difficult.
"We are a long way from Sigil, here, and even more so from Faerun and the city of Waterdeep.
“I will do as your people ask and petition the One. The red dragons, including one of my own acquaintance, will not readily sacrifice their immortal status in a risky venture to the worlds below.”
It was then that Archimedes made his presence known to his master.
The wyvern was lightly annoyed at the lack of attention of Zanathar. The young, red dragon was also wary of strangers whose arrivals in the star castle were few and far between.
"Perhaps I can strengthen Archie's defenses and cover him with a shielding sphere so that he may venture into the Void ahead of us. He will enlighten us as to the vibrations of things previously unseen in the planar habitat of the Void.
"I have done business with the Githyanki in previous eras and have come to know them to be courageous and disciplined travelers. It will do none of us any good for them to lose the backing of their spiritual sponsor, Vlaakith.”
“You have my thanks and that of my people, Zanathar,” replied Tehv'in. “I will leave you to your task. I admit that I am fatigued from my journey here from the Prime Material Plane. I thank you for your hospitality, as well. I will retire, now, and consult with you again on the morrow.”
“Be my guest, brave Githyanki. Archimedes will show you the way to your quarters.”
Tehv'in bowed and followed the path of the young, red dragon into the castle keep below.
Once the Githyanki had departed, Zanathar turned the focus of his attention to the task of contacting the One in the Void.
The ruler of the the Void was a massive, cosmic entity in the branches of the Astral Pantheon.
Zanathar prepared himself by assembling a mixture of rare, chemical agents in his fireplace. He also took some time to retrieve yellowed scrolls that specified the necessary words and gestures to generate a psychic bond with the distant reaches of the Void and its immensely powerful occupants.
[To be continued.]
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