Issue 3: Action, That's How! (A Caper in Time Part 2)

by Evan Forman and Michael Robertson - One Chapter a Week Starting 27.11.16


Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - King Zaedar is Introduced, He Learns of Our Hero’s Exploits in Issue #2, and A Mysterious Force Awakens™ From The Depths of The Ancient Past
Chapter 2 - John Boss - Incredibly - Escapes from "The White Palace of Death”, Shoots A BUNCH of Dudes, and Makes His Way to The Relative Safety of Dryadora’s Coal District
Chapter 3 - Dhubagèl Escorts Aerin Through The Sewers of Dryadora, But Maybe Also His Subconscious? What I Mean is We Get to Know More About This Previously Mysterious and At Points Unsettling Character, and The Subterranean Setting is Associated - in Jungian Psychoanalysis - With The Subconscious, So That Works
Chapter 4 - That Relatively Sedate Chapter Was Just a Break from The All-Important Action! As John Boss and Chel Make Their Way Through The Coal District In Their Attempt to Find Safe Refuge, But Not Without The Police Giving Chase
Chapter 5 - John Boss, Aerin Liette, Dhubagèl Shaen, Chel Hagar, and More are Finally United, and Ready to Strike Back Against King Zaedar’s Brutal Regime
Chapter 6 - The Past 30 Years of Aerin's Life Are Unlived for the Sake of the Plot, by Which I Mean Primarily the Plot of This Book, but Also the Plot Which the Red Hand Formulate in This Chapter, Which - If That Wasn't Obvious to You, Reader - Is a Clever Bit of Wordplay on the Similarities between The "Diegetic" Rebellion's Plot Which Requires Sacrifice, in a Very Fatalistic, Heroic Sort of Way, and The "Non-Diegetic" Aristotelian Plot Structure Which Requires Sacrifice in a Very Ritualistic “High-Maintenance Volcano God” Sort of Way
Chapter 7 - In a ‘Baroque Formalism’ Power Move, Four Conversations between John Boss the 34th and the Three Members of the Dryadora Red Hand Cell Are Intercut with a Scene of Domestic Mundanity, and a Scene of Great Heroism Which Is Also a Flashback into the past of John Boss the 41st. For the Purposes of Light Genre Parody, a Minor Character Has a Silly Name; A Minor Character Waits for a Bus, Which Doesn't Actually Move the Plot Forward or Contribute to The Themeing in Any Meaningful Way, And a Minor Character Mentions Things from Wurld’s past but Doesn’t Explain Them, Which Gives You That Kind of High-Fantasy Texture without the Bogged-Downedness That Comes with Fields of Exposition: All the Flavour of Fantasy with None of the Nutrition, and I Think That's Beautiful
Chapter 8 - The Night before the Operation, Aerin — Overcome by Insomnia — Hides Away in His Study and Distracts Himself from His Fear of Tomorrow's Events with the Comforting Familiarity of His Self-Loathing. Kreida Tries to Comfort Him and the Two End up Comparing Notes on a Relationship Forged under the Crucible Pressures of Mental Illness. It's Actually Really Nice.
Chapter 9 - There's a Flashback to an Episode from Chel Hagar's past with Revealing Parallels to Another Episode from Chel Hagar's Past: Chapter 7 of Issue #2. You Might Assume This Is Our Only Reason for Jumping Back a Few Years in Time, but Only If You Pay Attention Will You Notice That We're Subtly Reminding You of and Expanding on the Sub-Sub-Plot of Dryadora and / or the Whole Elvin Empire's failing Electricity System, Because That's Going to Be Important Later. We Then Seamlessly Transition into the Red Hand Cell's Infiltration of the DTV Station Where the Tapes of What Actually Happened in the Arena Are Kept. Being the End of Act II / Beginning of Act III, Things Go a Bit Skiwhiff and the Chapter Ends on a Thrilling Cliffhanger That You'll Have to Wait 'Til next Sunday to See Resolved!
Chapter 10 - Aerin and Krieda Spend Most of the Day in Dryadora's Pearl District, a Nice Day out Which Is Actually a Ruse by Aerin to Get near the Arena Where the Prime Minister Is Making His Speech. Krieda Is Conveniently Scheduled to Visit Her Parents in the Afternoon, so This Gives Aerin the Perfect Opportunity for a Heartbreaking Goodbye Scene before He Goes to Infiltrate the Press Crowd and Place Lockswell's Signal Jammer on the DTV Van's Satellite. Aerin and Dhubagèl Engage in Some Breathtakingly Suspenseful Scenes of Social Deception, but Are They Wily Enough to Avoid Detection by the Already On-Edge Members of the Prime Minister's Elite Guard? Also, How Good Was Doctor Who Last Night?
Chapter 11 - The Red Hand Defend the Control Room as Their Broadcast Goes out to the World. They Flee, and after a High-Octane Chase Scene They Escape into the Forests. All Hope Seems Lost, but Then They Are Saved by a Mysterious Character from an Earlier Point in the Story in a Way That Is Surprising but, Crucially, Still Made Inevitable by the Aristotelian Clockwork We've Established up until This Point. I Liked This Week's Doctor Who a Lot More Than Frank Cottrell-Boyce's Last Episode. It's Good That We're Getting More Fully-Realised Alien Planets In The Show Again
Chapter 12 - The Twelfth One

42 HOURS AND 17 MINUTES

"-It's a fucking eyesore is what it is, they've got to get their act together. Think of all the potential investment that's being turned away because people come to the Coal District and see shit like that, it’s a disgrace!”

The two elves waiting for a bus across from a burned-out council flat didn't notice Täikur as he strolled by. An orc carrying his shopping home might be cause for a hunting party in other districts, but down here everyone had their own miserable business to mind. On his way to the apartment he passed arrays of boarded-up windows, mounds of rubbish collecting on street corners and the (beautiful, he thought) stretch of green overgrowth where there used to be a steel mill. They'd torn the thing down to make room for a new building, but the buyers backed out once they realised they'd also have to pay for ridding the ground of all sorts of chemicals. The plants didn't seem to mind, nor did the swarm of children playing football beyond the skeletal fencing that lined the street.

He shifted one of three plastic shopping bags into his left hand as he climbed the mossy steps to the old building and carefully buzzed a tune on a button too small for his finger. He heard a click, and pushed open the stiff door. She’d been waiting to let him in, greeting him in a dressing gown and slippers accessorised with a cigarette. “Aw no, you didn’t-”

“It’s fine,” said Taïkur. “I saw your shopping list on the fridge as I passed through earlier.”

“Taïkur Soka have you been eating my fucking yoghurt again?” She narrowed her eyes behind a pointed cigarette. “Is that what this is payment for?”

“No, I-”

“‘No I haven’t been eating your fucking yoghurt’ or ‘no this isn’t payment for eating your fucking yoghurt’?”

He paused midway through cutting open a six-pack of beer. “…both?”

She opened the fridge door for him, leaning over to inspect its contents as he put her things in. She nodded and threw it closed, trying to fix her dirty blonde hair while he wasn’t looking. “How are things, anyway?”

“You know I can’t talk about that.”

“So you know nothing about that robot thing on the telly?”

“No comment.”

“OOH!” She leaned over, extending an arm against the wall of the narrow kitchen to block his exit. “So have they caught the guy that did it? If one human can make that thing go crazy, doesn’t that mean they’ve spent millions on a load of pish? Or is the killing machine just indiscriminate? Which is worse?”

Taïkur reached up over the row of cabinets, felt a circle of cold metal, and pulled down a chunkier-than-usual version of Lockswell’s little metal bracelets. “Tharra, I’ll tell you everything when this is over.” He clicked it on around the wrist of his right hand, and picked up his two bags of shopping.

“When will it be over?” she asked, lowering her arm, taking a step towards him, taking a drag of her cigarette.

~

“When the wearer’s heart stops, this sticky pad thing detects it and sends a signal down to whatever it’s attached to,” said Maurice, waving his finger over the length of the wire connected to nothing. He spun around and pulled out a flimsy cardboard box from one of the crypt’s many alcoves.

“What’s it for?” asked John, his huge form hunched over the little table of Lockswell’s workshop.

“Oh, they use it in hospitals. When a patient flatlines there’s a machine that starts beeping like crazy and the nurses come running. I thought you said you were a doctor?”

“Of literature,” he smiled.

Lockswell pulled out an old radio and dropped it down on the table with a clattering of loose parts. “But for our purposes, we’ll be using it to set off the device.”

“Why?”

He paused, focussing on getting his screwdriver into a tiny hole in the radio’s side. “Because you can’t pull a trigger when you’re dead.” He looked at the clock on the wall. “When did Taïkur leave?”

~

“About…five years ago,” said Taïkur, downing the last of his glowing green drink. “She was seventeen at the time, nobody goes through the initiation until twenty-one. Not voluntarily, anyway.”

“Did she do it voluntarily?”

“I don’t know.”

“She doesn’t seem like one to turn down a challenge,” John leaned back in his chair. “It’s not in her blood.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” he replied, carefully measuring a jug full of powder as glassware bubbled around his laboratory. “She’s always been reckless.”

“You appear worried,” said John.

“I usually am.”

~

“I’ll be fine!” John smiled, wrapping her arm around his waist. “I’ve seen and done worse in my very short time on this planet.”

“How do you know?” he replied.

“What?”

“What do you know about the initiation? Has the Elder told you anything?”

“I know not everybody makes it out alive.”

“Do you know that they’ll be actively trying to kill you?”

“So’s the rest of the world.”

He didn’t reply for a few moments, looking into her eyes as if he knew it would be the last time. “And that’s never stopped you before, has it?”

“You know me so well.” She ran a hand through his vibrant orange hair as they kissed in the shadow of the crumbling sandstone arch.

He pulled away from her. “That’s what I wanted to talk about.”

“Later,” she held him tighter and tried to kiss him again, her face hitting the side of his jaw.

“No, now.”

She stepped back, folding her arms. “You’re seeing me for maybe the last time and THIS is the conversation you want to have?”

“I’ve let you drag it out this long.”

“How many times do I have to say it?” Her shoulders sank. “No. I’m not going to ‘choose’. I don’t have to.”

“Why not!?” He spat. “It’s not a difficult question. Does he love you?”

“I…” her confidence flickered. “…I don’t know.”

“Do you love him?”

She hesitated, “yes.”

He sighed, hiding his face behind his palms. “You can’t.”

“Why not?!”

“You can’t love two people at once, John.”

“*I* can.”

“WHY?! What makes you so special!?”

“Lots of things,” she stated bluntly. “It’s why you’re absolutely incandescently irretrievably infatuated by me, isn’t it?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake!” He kicked off the wall and started to walk away.

“That was a joke.”

“EVERYTHING’S A JOKE!” He shouted, hurtling around to face her as he left her. “EVERYTHING’S JUST SOME FUCKING LITTLE… ADVENTURE! TO YOU!”

“Come back,” she mewled.

“FUCK OFF!”

“PESTO!”

“DON’T!” he stormed back towards her. “Don’t say my name, don’t…” he raised a hand.

“Don’t you dare.”

“Or what?”

“I’ll kill you.”

He stayed still and silent, and kept his fists clenched as he turned away. “You still smell like him, you know that? You’re with him then you immediately come swinging over to me like any other fucking slut. Was *he* there to actually say goodbye or did he just come into your tent to use you up last time?”

“He came to give me a-”

“Fuck off, I don’t care,” Pesto muttered. “Fuck you.”

She leaned against the foot of an ancient pillar as she watched him recede down the hill, returning to the manor in the centre of the cave whose grassy floor was lit by little holes in the roof. “The Manor” was the name used to refer to this place, but the house itself burned down centuries ago and now stood up from beneath its shroud of moss like any other cluster of stalagmite. The name threw off spies, and according to local legend the house had been secret even in its prime - a baroque hideaway for some wealthy recluse nestled below the razor mountains at the western tip of Collisterra’s coastline. Even older than the burned-out shell of the mansion, some proto-religious architecture from the time of the Immortal had naturally eroded and was sinking lazily into the landscape over millennia. Now filled with tents and training grounds, the cave had once again become a refuge for heretics.

John Boss walked slowly between the two rows of stone stumps - once columns supporting a temple, perhaps - richly engraved with gargoyles, dragons, lions and snakes as she approached the footprint of an inner sanctum. In the centre of the circle was a blanket with two cushions and a goblet. One cushion was for her, and on the other sat Elder Anthem, leader of the Red Hand, perched on his knees with an ornate robe surrounding him like two great wings.

She sat down slowly next to the ancient man, and bowed with a mix of respect and trepidation.

~

“Fuck d’you want?” she said to John Boss the 34th as she slumped down in her chair.

“Is it so wrong to want to take the chance to talk with the mighty John Boss?” he smiled.

“Course not,” she replied, putting her feet up on the table. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you anyway, Professor Jingles. Mysteries abound.”

“Such as?” he asked as he sat down.

“‘Jingles’. It’s not your real name, is it?”

“Well,” he chuckled, putting his foot up on the table. “It’s not my birth name.”

“So what happened?” she asked. “Who’d you used to be?”

~

“He was a tyrant, a madman, his regard for life absolutely nonexistent. ‘Barbarian’ is the word that comes to mind, but no… the Red Death was an extraordinarily intelligent man. There were whispers, amongst the Collisterran College of Magick, that he’d spoken to some of the defectors in visions. The council tried to dismiss these as the random associations of sleeping minds, while collecting multiple testimonies of exactly the same dream. They tried to hide the records of the visions, but mages were an infinitely curious lot, and that scandal is what split the college in two.”

“But the college wasn’t built to keep people out, was it?” John asked. “It was built to keep you lot in.”

“Da-Irah’s city guard watched the fighting for four days,” said the Elder. “That was the agreed-upon procedure for such an event, for centuries, but of course what does a crowded city’s population do if they believe there’s a magickal war between psychics, summoners and necromancers happening right in the middle of town?”

“Wasn’t there?”

“For all we fight for the commoner, my pupil, these were illiterate peasants afraid of their own shadows.”

“You said the Red Death recruited the mages through dreams because he couldn’t go near the city,” she leaned forward. “How could they have all had exactly the same dream?”

“They told the council they all had exactly the same dream,” the Elder smiled. “There is a crucial difference.”

“Oooh.”

“The Red Death had sent an agent into the college before his army had even landed in Collisterra, they carried the transcript that the converted ‘dreamers’ repeated to the council. By the time his army arrived outside Da-Irah, the defecting mages had been allowed to leave the college on the condition they never return to the city.”

“But why did the Red Death want them? Surely he must have known that magick isn’t…”

“The mages and their blessings were a powerful morale-boost for the soldiers. The soldiers of Astor and Dryadora believed they had their gods on their side, the army of the Red Hand believed they had gods in their veins. The point I am trying to illustrate, John, is that stories are powerful things, and you should consider the tales they will tell about you after this day.”

She nodded, considering his words deeply.

~

John Boss the 34th chuckled as his great-something granddaughter made farting noises with her mouth, lips flapping against her wrist.

~

With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the “threshold guardian” at the entrance to the zone of magnified power. Such custodians bound the world in the four directions — also up and down — standing for the limits of the hero's present sphere, or life horizon. Beyond them is darkness, the unknown, and danger; just as beyond the parental watch is danger to the infant and beyond the protection of his society danger to the member of the tribe. The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular belief gives him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored.

~

“So you’re the local shaman, is what you’re saying?” asked John Boss the 34th.

“That’s the essence of it,” Taïkur replied, measuring out powders in a jar. “Though the politically correct term these days is ‘doctor’.” It was difficult to see his wry smile, behind the two great tusks that pointed up from behind his bottom lip, but not impossible.

“Then I have a question for you, something rather technical, but, one that I got the sense Lockswell would laugh off.”

“Mhmm?” he grunted, sticking his tongue out a little as he gently shook the contents of a beaker out into the jar.

“When Chel and I were coming here, we were being chased by these two elves-”

“Into the sewers?”

“No, no. They chased us into some alleyway. It was flooded, and there was a… generator on the wall.” John tried to illustrate the idea of something being attached to a wall with his hands, uncertain for the first time in a long time. “Chel told me to pull it out of its socket and throw it into the water as they approached, and I did, and what happened next-”

“Battery fever?” Taïkur looked up at John.

“I’m not sure I understand,” John folded his arms on the table.

“Was that your first time? Oh,” he leaned back in his spinning metal chair - obviously stolen - and kicked off the wall to glide over next to John. “What did you see?”

“Well, the water glowed green, but, the whole alley had been lit up… weirdly, as if the light didn’t have any actual source.”

“Mercury fhalmium has a luminescent and exothermic reaction when it comes into contact with water, was there anything in the puddle?”

“Other than the elves, just waste-”

“OH!” Taïkur clapped for joy, shifting his seat back a little. “They were actually IN the water? I thought you were just using it as a diversion! Oh, that’s… oh!”

“Well,” said John. “I wasn’t sure what would happen.”

“The industrial-strength reaction is hugely corrosive, which is why you don’t want to be near that stuff outside a controlled enivronment, and,” he pointed “in a relaxed and safe atmosphere among people you know and trust, if it’s your first time. After that? Fine, but you really need to be in the right mood for it. Anyway,” he leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “What did you see?”

“Both of the elves dropped to their knees, as if pushed. Then they both levitated into the air, one was thrown against the brick wall so hard as to be entirely pulped. The other pointed and shouted about him being thrown through a window to someone that wasn’t there, but then he was stabbed - probably run through by some invisible sword, going by the bleeding from his chest. But that wasn’t what bothered me, I’ve seen plenty of death in my time, but I could hear people talking in a forgotten cadence: I heard the voices of Dryadora’s past, the filth and disease and the corpses lining the street. I think the first elf was thrown through a window that used to be there, in that spot in the wall, I think I heard the glass smashing. I think I heard the person inside shouting, but, there was screaming everywhere.”

“And then what happened?”

“The light went away. The puddle had vanished and the ground was incinerated, the elves were gone.”

“You definitely saw them in the alley before the explosion?”

“Yes.”

“Oooh,” Taïkur stroked his tusk. “Yes, mercury fhalmium in its pure form has all the volatility of the fun-size reaction, but the hallucinogenic effects last a fraction as long. I’m surprised they were that potent.”

“I assumed it was some kind of witchcraft, you’re saying I envisioned all this?”

“Just because you hallucinated it that doesn’t mean it isn’t witchcraft,” said Taïkur, getting up to go to one of his many cabinets.

“It all felt incredibly real.”

“And it’ll feel even more vivid once you try grandmother’s secret brew,” he turned around holding a sealed bottle of green liquid and a vial of murky water. “I won’t tell if you don’t?” he smiled.

“You know I usually aim to keep my senses razor-sharp but after two days in this city of newfangled technology it is so good to finally meet someone who knows how to just throw some leaves in a bowl and call it magick.”

Taïkur roared laughing. “Well, how much do you know?”

“About magick?”

“Yes,” he said, placing the bottles on the table and pulling over two empty glasses.

John paused for a moment. “There are ranks and degrees to these sorts of things, I don’t want to give anything away now, do I?”

“Very wise,” Taïkur nodded. “I know enough about science to know that people cannot conjure fire from their fingertips, but I know enough about the universe to know that science can only take us so far and I know enough about people to know that if you throw some nettles, pixie’s lace, ratclaw and wormwood in a bottle and call it a charm for courage, you can turn a mouse into a lion.”

John nodded and smiled. “That is my understanding, more or less,” he said, lying. “But you know history, don’t you? There are many records from the olden times of magickal feats, healers and necromancers, of the War of The Dead.”

“Metaphorical, of course,” Taïkur replied. “The world only stretches as far as your ability to describe it. What do you call it when a prudish and contentedly married man of god is led into sexual depravity by the strange new woman in town? Surely she’s manipulating him, surely *must* be a witch. What do you call it when a doctor talks a bum leg into healing and ‘psychosomosis’ isn’t in your vocabulary? What do you call it when the opposing army’s soldiers keep coming back onto the field and ‘their side has better medicine than ours’ has never occurred to you?”

“That’s a convenient explanation for centuries of eyewitness testimonies,” said John.

“Magick, as described in surviving historical sources, is demonstrably not real. Historical sources do, nevertheless, describe magick. So it’s definitely a possibility that magick once occurred but now does not, or cannot.” He leaned forward. “But it’s also worth considering that at least two major religions were founded in times and places where mind-altering substances grew in abundance, but were consumed into extinction,” he slid a glass of treated water over to John and used a pipette to add a drop of mercury fhalmium into both of their drinks, casting eerie green light over his jagged grin. “Cheers.”

~

This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Its resemblance to the adventure of the Symplegades is obvious. But here, instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshipper into a temple where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls.

They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis. His secular character remains without; he sheds it, as a snake its slough. Once inside he may be said to have died to time and returned to the World Womb, the World Navel, the Earthly Paradise. The mere fact that anyone can physically walk past the temple guardians does not invalidate their significance; for if the intruder is incapable of encompassing the sanctuary, then he has effectually remained without. Anyone unable to understand a god sees it as a devil and is thus defended from the approach. Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting, in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.

~

John finished the last of her disgusting wine, and placed the ceremonial goblet back down on its platform. The Red Hand’s headquarters sat in the middle of a natural chamber about the size of a small town, and since being occupied most of the chamber had been build on except for one quarter of wide open grass where all the surviving ruins stood. In the corner of this area, furthest away from everything else, there was a little fenced-off outpost towards which, a few times a day, a guard from the camp would set out up the hill and across the plain, and a guard would return from the solitary hut. Everybody knew about the network of tunnels below the main chamber, a handful even knew the extent of their reach and complexity, but nobody - not in John’s lifetime - had ever actually entered and come back out.

The guard opened the junk-fence door as the Elder approached with John following behind him. Inside the little compound was a hut for a guard to sit in, with a few sandbag walls and a concrete turret position facing the mouth of the tunnel: blocked up except for a little door, barely big enough for a person. The guard kept his rifle pointed at the door as the Elder opened it up with a great metal whinge, and he nodded to John as she clenched her fists and stepped into the dark.

“Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials,” said the Elder. “This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage.”

He opened his eyes and looked up at John.

“You can recite all this from memory?” she asked.

“Every man in my position must,” the Elder replied.

“So what do I have helping me? This ‘amulet’?”

“The cup is empty, it courses through your veins.”

“Right. And what is it I’m going in for?”

“What do you mean?” said the Elder.

“In the prophecy the hero is almost always sent to retrieve something.”

The Elder smiled. “Very good. I cannot say, but it is an ancient object thought to be lost in the very oldest and very deepest section of the caverns. We have consulted the scriptures, and we think we know where it is.” The Elder pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to John. She opened it up and inspected the incomprehensible network of tunnels. On the lower-right of the paper: a bright red ‘X’.

John Boss looked at the map in the orange light of the torch she’d been given, a tree branch holding a burning parcel of sulfur and lime. Alone and in apprentice’s robes, she ventured away from the light of the modern world behind her, down towards the belly of the world.

Time passed, maybe. John climbed down slopes of rock much steeper than they had appeared on the map and became puzzled by the scale of the thing in relation to the territory. Finally, unable to turn back, she came to a deep abyss that had not been charted. Wandering off to the side and frantically tracing and retracing her path on the paper, she heard a crack beneath her sandals. She stuffed the map into her pocket, and looked at the skeleton on the ground. Human, recent.

Time passed. She sat cross-legged across from the bones. The tunnel was too steep to go back, and she hadn’t made a wrong turn for there had only been one path so far. On the other side of the chasm was the tunnel the map would lead her down. She stood up again, and walked to the edge of the void. She wondered what had happened to the skeleton. They had starved to death here, obviously, for there were no wounds but her footprint in the skull, but… there was something stale about this place. She could not imagine life existing here in the total silence, even the uncanny death-fed bacteria that picked these bones clean. Her surroundings were bare, unfurnished but for stalactites and a faint wet shimmer. John noticed a stray pebble and kicked it over the edge.

Splash.

She ran to the skeleton, picked it up by its shoulders and tossed it into the abyss.

Splash.

She looked at the tunnel on the other side of the chasm, much too far to jump to, and looked down at the black below her. She held the torch in front of her, as if she could see below. As she tried to turn off fear and accept that rationally she could maybe die now or definitely die later it slipped from her trembling hand. She watched it tumble, lighting the wall of the chasm as it fell and smacking off an outcrop covered in dry blood before it reached the water below. It sank for a few moments, and kept burning.

John closed her eyes and clenched her fists, sweating, her heavy breathing returning to her from every surface. She was hungry, she did not know how much time had passed - an hour? Most of a day? But she was unbearably hungry and her thoughts felt disoriented, as if she had one foot in a dream. She remembered a story she was told as a child, in the camp, from the heretics who lived here long before anyone else did. A woman had lost her husband to illness and become inconsolably suicidal. She went out to the sea cliffs one night, and jumped. She hit the water and did not open her eyes as she kept falling, as if through air, until finally she landed softly on a bed of coral. She awoke to find herself in the land of the dead. The myth was cleverly ambiguous about whether the woman had magically crossed over to the land of the dead or if she was simply dead, but…

John, eyes closed, raised one foot over the edge, and jumped.

Her whole body stung as she hit the water and opened her eyes, groping towards the light from the torch, its shadows filling the eyes of the skulls who slept here. She swam up and gasped, adrenaline the only thing powering her, and crawled up the shore of the cave. She sat down in her wet robes and tried to collect herself, trying to regulate her breathing. When she thought she was calm, she consulted the map in her pocket: black and yellow sludge that fell apart in her hands.

John remembered that the caves went deep, everyone had been told those stories as children, but she didn’t know whether or not she’d fallen into uncharted territory. Down here the chambers were much taller, and some of the walls bore eroded finger-paintings: vast blocks of abstract symbols, rows of priests or shamen marching towards a temple, a building flanked on two sides by what looked like… jaws? Or a ribcage, or tentacles.

“Carved from the bones of dead religions, saving spaces for religions yet to die.”

John Boss swept her torch like a sword as she shot around, her earlobe cold from where lips had touched her. The cave was empty, too wide and open for anything to hide. The chamber went on for almost as far as she could see, and at the bottom of the far wall, like a pinhole, a doorway the size and shape of a coffin. She squeezed through - the temple was old enough for humans to have grown substantially since its abandonment, if these skeletons around her were indeed human - and entered a rectangular hall with a flight of short stairs. Torches burned on the walls: sconces filled with eerie blue flame. John ascended the stairway and found herself in a corridor with no roof. She realised she was at the very bottom of something expansive and horrifying as she looked up and saw the constellations: bridges lined with firepits, highlighted entrances and windows and fallen-through floors revealing huge chambers cast in blue light. It reminded her of an optical illusion, some part of her sincerely thought she was looking at a corpse-city floating in the dark, the actual secret meaning of the word “necropolis”. She was not sure that she was wrong.

Shining orange light in a tunnel of blue, she couldn’t help but feel noticed as she crept through the catacombs: another huge room lined with four floors of sarcophagi. This room curved at the far end, and naturalistically sloped down into another corridor of the labyrinthine crypt. She thought she heard something, which made her pause, but she then decided that, rationally, it must have been a breath of wind. When this tale is told, most narrators will pause here to remind the listener that nobody knows how deep underground she was at this moment.

The corridor became narrower and John became suspicious of every alcove. The coffins were ornate, bulky stone creatures that had stared at eachother for at least two thousand years. They were marked with symbols - which she pretended to inspect with her torch - an old and maybe forgotten language, yes, but one that looked nothing like the alien scrawl she’d passed in the cave. She tried to stop her whole body trembling, and tried to feign a steady and unsuspecting pace. She tried not to look back, and she tried not to make a sound. She’d heard the coffin open behind her thirty-one seconds ago.

She ducked, just as she heard the sword cutting through stale air, and kicked behind her, the weapon clattering to the ground next to her. Before she could swipe the torch at it the gurning creature swiped at her face with metal claws. It caught her by the hair as it stood back up and slammed her head against the coffin. She stabbed at it with her torch, which it tore out of her hand with ease. She punched at its crotch, hard, and heard something crack as her bones hit metal. The creature threw her to the ground and tried to jump onto her ribcage. She rolled over and grabbed the sword on the floor, just quick enough to get a swipe at its leg, disorienting it for the crucial second. She shot up and stabbed at its inner knee, disabling it. The creature turned to attack again but she launched at it, clinging to its upper torso and leaning her whole weight down on it. The creature fell on its back, and she pressed her knees on its shoulders and the sword to its throat, her blood dripping onto its stone death mask.

“So you *are* actively trying to kill me,” she said, spitting blood. “I’m 17 and we’re on the same side, who the fuck are you?”

“There will be no mercy for you in this world, John Boss,” said the man, his voice muffled by his mask.

“Yeah,” she raised the sword and pointed at his face. “No shit.”

She ripped the mask off, and somehow did not recoil as a flood of spiders burst forth from beneath the bandages. She stabbed at the black and brown mass, but the rusty sword shattered against the stone floor below. She leapt back into the light of the torch, which the river of legs flowed around, and held the flame to the ground in front of her as she ran out of the corridor disoriented.

John lurched forwards as she stopped, just before running across shards of a ceramic pot. She was in some kind of workshop. Strange tools hung on the walls, shelves were lined with dead herbs and one corner was consumed by a glowing white fungus that had spread over the roof and floor. The room was long, and six stone tables stood in two rows of three. A sarcophagus lay on one table, which John inspected with her torch. On another table, at the far end of the room, a mummy, which she stabbed in the heart just to be sure, which was a comfort to her, until it or the air around it seemed to warp slightly. The fungus around her pulsed - she could hear some kind of squelching liquid operation as each one got lighter and darker. She took the sword out of the corpse and continued to the next room.

She could see something glowing through the small door on the other side of the room. All that separated her from her goal was this large chamber: obviously the site for some kind of funeral procession. Another stone table in the centre of the room, below a light from a circular hole cut out of the roof; an oval path covered in moss, surrounded by some black plant that must have only grown in the dark. She trudged down a ramp and onto the path, where she could smell and nearly hear the processions of fragrant incense that once took place here for what people above would call days, the calendar a mourning ritual.

Something switched on inside her, some fear reaction that her body would not fully obey, like she was in a dream. She saw the creatures stalking from behind the columns that surrounded her, but. She looked around, five of them, and adrenaline refused to fire. Her body felt heavy, she waved a sword at one of them, her whole body following as if drunk, and missed. One of the creatures took her by her arms behind her back and held her to its bony chest. It was weak, John thought, but she was nothing. Seeing the torch on the ground where she stood as the creature dragged her towards the altar, she realised she still had the sword on her. She dropped the sword. It was difficult to hear the murmurs of the creatures, for as far as her ears could tell John was underwater. She enjoyed the cool touch of the stone on her back as they laid her out on the altar to die. She wondered why she wasn’t fighting back as one of the creatures - bedecked in fur like a shaman - crawled up onto her with its ceramic teeth bared. She wondered why she wasn’t fighting back. She wondered if there was really reason to, if all the world had not been choreographed to turn like this from the start. She gripped onto the arm of the shaman-creature as she felt it slip a knife into her stomach, the pain less noticeable to her somehow than the feeling of hot breath against her neck.

Free-association: Mo.

Maurice.

Maurice Lockswell.

A lion with the voice of a mouse.

Aw.

John smiled as she remembered him, from the land of the dead. Smiled as she remembered their last meeting, in her tent in the early dark morning, and all his fear and desperation, how he held her before she had to go, under the pretense of slipping her a stolen pistol while nobody would see.

She shot the shaman in the face, pressing the gun below his chin and finding the hot red mess (dark blue in this light) delightful. She threw him aside and sat up and shot the two creatures at the foot of the altar and elbowed one from behind her and shot it in the upper torso and threw herself off the altar, on her elbows and knees as another creature came at her with her broken sword. She clumsily fired a few rounds at it, hitting it in the leg and waist and crippling it. The creature, which she could see hazily - as if the sound of the gunshots created ripples in her vision - writhed in agony as she wrestled the sword from its hand, twisting its arm with no fear or aggression as she listened to it scream. John pulled the sword from it, and pressed the blade through its lungs.

Leaning on the sword in the corpse to avoid collapse, for what might have been ten minutes or thirty, John eventually stood. She took in deep breaths through her nose, as if about to vomit, and carried the empty gun with her for protection. Originally she had thought that the creatures could not be killed with weapons from their own dimension, which would explain the disappearing one in the corridor and how easily they fell with human bullets. She knew, now, looking at the four corpses of men behind her, that she had been drugged. As she approached the light at the end of the corridor, three giant axes began swinging from the roof, having dropped from alcoves in the walls. John thought that this place was older than civilisation, at least, and smiled - remembering that the lightbulb in the guard tower never lasted more than a month - as she walked through them, keeping a hand pressed to the wound in her side as the huge blades passed through her.

The room was circular, with a circle of still water surrounding a stone pedestal. There was a crumbling barrier to a balcony that ran around the room, below a canopy of vines and what could have been giant roots. The barrier surrounding the water had a gap, for someone to walk onto a square outcrop of stone on the water: where a worshipper would come to commune with…

~

This tale of indulgent parenthood illustrates the antique idea that when the roles of life are assumed by the improperly initiated, chaos supervenes. When the child outgrows the popular idyl of the mother breast and turns to face the world of specialized adult action, it passes, spiritually, into the sphere of the father — who becomes, for his son, the sign of the future task, and for his daughter, of the future husband. Whether he knows it or not, and no matter what his position in society, the father is the initiating priest through whom the young being passes on into the larger world. And just as, formerly, the mother represented the "good" and "evil," so now does he, but with this complication — that there is a new element of rivalry in the picture: the son against the father for the mastery of the universe, and the daughter against the mother to be the mastered world.



The traditional idea of initiation combines an introduction of the candidate into the techniques, duties, and prerogatives of his vocation with a radical readjustment of his emotional relationship to the parental images. The mystagogue (father or father-substitute) is to entrust the symbols of office only to a son who has been effectually purged of all inappropriate infantile cathexes — for whom the just, impersonal exercise of the powers will not be rendered impossible by unconscious (or perhaps even conscious and rationalized) motives of self-aggrandizement, personal preference, or resentment. Ideally, the invested one has been divested of his mere humanity and is representative of an impersonal cosmic force. He is the twice-born: he has become himself the father. And he is competent, consequently, now to enact himself the role of the initiator, the guide, the sun door, through whom one may pass from the infantile illusions of "good" and "evil" to an experience of the majesty of cosmic law, purged of hope and fear, and at peace in the understanding of the revelation of being.



There can be no doubt that no matter how unilluminated the stark-naked Australian savages may seem to us, their symbolical ceremonials represent a survival into modern times of an incredibly old system of spiritual instruction, the far-flung evidences of which are to be found not only in all the lands and islands bordering the Indian Ocean, but also among the remains of the archaic centers of what we tend to regard as our own very special brand of civilization. Just how much the old men know, it is difficult to judge from the published accounts of our Occidental observers. But it can be seen from a comparison of the figures of Australian ritual with those familiar to us from higher cultures, that the great themes, the ageless archetypes, and their operation upon the soul remain the same.



The paradox of creation, the coming of the forms of time out of eternity, is the germinal secret of the father. It can never be quite explained. Therefore, in every system of theology there is an umbilical point, an Achilles tendon which the finger of mother life has touched, and where the possibility of perfect knowledge has been impaired. The problem of the hero is to pierce himself (and therewith his world) precisely through that point; to shatter and annihilate that key knot of his limited existence.

The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands — and the two are atoned.

~

…the Red Death, represented by a steel mask with one eye and a red robe of a design similar to the old Collisterran College of Magick. John approached the platform, and refused to kneel.

“Where is it?” she asked.

“Of what do you speak?” the Red Death answered.

“I was sent here to retrieve an ancient artefact, or…” she closed her eyes as the pain in her head swelled, “…something.”

The Red Death was silent.

“What?” John asked. “Did I fail your trials?” She limply tossed the empty gun at him. “Was that against the rules?”

“Stage five: the hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region,” declared the Red Death.

“And where are we…” John laughed, trying to regain her balance.

“A landscape of fluid, ambiguous forms, the revelation of being,” the Red Death responded. Slipping a hand out from beneath his robe, he clicked and conjured fire from his fingertips. The Red Death held the fireball in his hand, reaching out to John Boss the 42nd. “Now, do you see the light?”

She fell backwards, splitting her head open on the stone.

Squiggle.

The perfection of the delicate wings of an insect, broken in the passage of time, he regards—and he himself is both their perfection and their disinte- gration. The perennial agony of man, self-torturing, deluded, tan- gled in the net of his own tenuous delirium, frustrated, yet having within himself, undiscovered, absolutely unutilized, the secret of re- lease; this too he regards—and is. Serene above man, the angels; below man, the demons and unhappy dead: these all are drawn to the Bodhisattva by the rays of his jewel hands, and they are he, as he is they. The bounded, shackled centers of consciousness, myriad- fold, on every plane of existence (not only in this present universe, limited by the Milky Way, but beyond, into the reaches of space), galaxy beyond galaxy, world beyond world of universes, coming into being out of the timeless pool of the void, bursting into life, and like a bubble therewith vanishing: time and time again: lives by the multitude: all suffering: each bounded in the tenuous, tight circle of itself—lashing, killing, hating, and desiring peace beyond victory: these all are the children, the mad figures of the transitory yet inex- haustible, long world dream of the All-Regarding, whose essence is the essence of Emptiness: "The Lord Looking Down in Pity."



This is the redeeming insight. That protecting father is every man we meet. And so it must be known that, though this ignorant, limited, self-defending, suffering body may regard it- self as threatened by some other—the enemy—that one too is the God. The ogre breaks us, but the hero, the fit candidate, un- dergoes the initiation "like a man''; and behold, it was the fa- ther: we in Him and He in as.116 The dear, protecting mother of our body could not defend us from the Great Father Serpent; the mortal, tangible body that she gave us was delivered into his frightening power. But death was not the end. New life, new birth, new knowledge of existence (so that we live not in this physique only, but in all bodies, all physiques of the world, as the Bodhisattva) was given us. That father was himself the womb, the mother, of a second birth.11'

This is the meaning of the image of the bisexual god. He is the mystery of the theme of initiation. We are taken from the mother, chewed into fragments and assimilated to the world- annihilating body of the ogre for whom all the precious forms and beings are only the courses of a feast; but then, miraculously reborn, we are more than we were.

John Boss the 41st placed the sword on the table. “This is the scimitar of the Red Death himself, once held by the Doom Pirate Nazir Al-Zahabi: a man known only for having once held this scimitar.”

John Boss the 34th saw his smile reflected in the red metal, still immaculate after two centuries. “What happened to Nazir?”

“There are a few different legends about it, but they all converge around the tales of Sir James Lockswell.”

“What of the tales of John Boss?”

“What?”

“You mentioned that Lockswell and Boss were connected somehow, at Ludorena.”

“Oh yeah. John Boss was a travelling bandit who Lockswell became allies with at the Battle of Ludorena. Which was called the Battle of Ludorena because it was technically the largest conflict the village had ever seen, even thought it really was just Lockswell and, like, ten homeless guys. No relation, before you ask,” she said, casually pulling out a chair and throwing herself down.

“Really?” John pretended to inspect the sword further, holding his pose of concentration as if he was not frozen.

“John used to be a guy’s name back then, Boss is a not-uncommon surname amongst humans,” she leafed through the fashion magazine Taïkur had brought her back from his shopping trip. “The name’s a coincidence, as far as anyone knows.”

For the sake of preserving interiority I’m going to need some audience participation. I would like you to take a few minutes to vividly remember the coldest winter wind you’ve ever known. Season permitting, I would like you to go outside into the snow right now - no coat and no shoes - and I want you to walk far outwith the borders of your town or your city into the blistering cold, until the props of civilisation are all gone and there is just you and white below you and gray above. Fall face-first into the snow and lay there until you are consumed by hypothermia. What you think of next will say a lot about you as a person: whether you are first struck by the fact that nobody cared enough to save you, or by the fact that you have died. Both reactions are more than valid, but I want you to focus on the one that hurts the most.

“Huh,” said John, sat down with an arm resting on the back of his chair.

(This useless sentence demarcates a silence.)

“What happened to your eye, then?” he asked.

“Some infection when I was a baby, it’s never worked. A surgeon owed me a favour so I got the augmentation a couple years ago.” She looked up at him, lenses audibly adjusting in her machinery. “You?”

“I lost my eye in a high-stakes poker game of which I was the only survivor,” he smiled.

“I find that all my most entertaining anecdotes are the ones where nobody is left alive to corroborate them,” she grinned.

He fidgeted with his fingers as he looked around the room of John Boss, no relation: a pile of books and magazines spilling out of a bookshelf, clothes and stolen trinkets scattered everywhere; strings of harsh orange lightbulbs above casting black shadows between the stones in the walls, highlighting obituaries etched in slab.

“So, the Red Death,” he said.

“Mhmm?” John sipped on a chipped mug of water.

“He lost the battle of Dryadora. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?”

“This is news to you?”

“How? What happened that day that turned the tide against him?”

“Um. Well, historians disagree-”

“What do *you* think?” John leaned forward, folding his arms on the table. “What should he have done differently?”

John paused.

~

“Intelligence,” said Lockswell. “If he’d had someone behind enemy lines he’d have known that just because he had the elves outnumbered that didn’t mean he had them outgunned. He didn’t even have them *gunned*,” he chuckled grimly, taking the sticky pad off his chest and watching the connected light in the radio switch on. “His cavalry led the charge into battle and the elves shot them into paste.”

~

“Morale… certainty,” lamented Taïkur. “The Red Death and his band set out onto the Collisterran desert as heroes with hearts full of hope and unwavering moral conviction. By the time they’d reached the mouth of the Abyss, his soldiers had seen a lifetime of unjustifiable slaughter before the actual war had even begun.”

~

“He didn’t go far enough,” decided John, snapping back from her contemplation. “Like many disgraced human generals before him he had this ridiculous notion that a 12-year-old Orc girl couldn’t snap an adult soldier between their fingers.” She smiled. “That and his approach to ‘magick’ was… unambitious. People these days talk about the ‘Hand of The Red Death’ as if it wasn’t 60% civilians who’d been roped into the army on pain of death, either by Red now or Praeon later. An enchantment for courage or good fortune will get a rookie onto the battlefield, but when it comes to the actual fight it’s going to take communion with gods and monsters to turn a baker into a butcher.”

“I’ve heard some people say it was his cruelty that was his downfall,” said John, leaning back into his chair.

~

John’s whole body was on fire, her hands shaking as she cried and failed to lift herself up off the dusty floor of the ritual chamber. The Red Death smiled above her, robes glistening like flame.

~

She smirked. “There’s an initiation you have to go through, if you want to fight for the Red Hand out in the field. I think if he has anything to teach us it is that there is such a thing as a greater good.”

~

Her guts felt like they’d fallen out of her as she traced a circle, over and over, in the ancient grime on the floor. The Red Death stepped off his platform and stood above her, sword drawn. She stared slack-jawed and drooling at the circle’s unbreakable form, its completion. John’s head fell to the stone again, crushed by the weight of overpowering heat and light. She managed to turn onto her back, and her rabid fury was met with the object she had come to retrieve: the scimitar of Nazir Al-Zahabi, whose tip burned at her throat.

The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philos- ophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individ- ual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Fi- nally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form—all symboliza- tions, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.

Her guts felt like they’d fallen out of her as she traced a circle, over and over, in the ancient grime on the floor. The Red Death stepped off his platform and stood above her, sword drawn. She stared slack-jawed and drooling at the circle’s unbreakable form, its completion.

So it is that when Dante had taken the last step in his spiritual adventure, and came before the ultimate symbolic vision of the Triune God in the Celestial Rose, he had still one more illumina- tion to experience, even beyond the forms of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. "Bernard," he writes, "made a sign to me, and smiled, that I should look upward; but I was already, of myself, such as he wished; for my sight, becoming pure, was entering more and more, through the radiance of the lofty Light which in Itself is true. Thenceforward my vision was greater than our speech, which yields to such a sight, and the memory yields to such excess."16'

Her guts felt like they’d fallen out of her as she traced a circle, over and over, in the ancient grime on the floor. The Red Death stepped off his platform and stood above her, sword drawn. She stared slack-jawed and drooling at the circle’s unbreakable form, its completion.

The place of the hero's birth, or the remote land of exile from which he returns to perform his adult deeds among men, is the mid-point or navel of the world. Just as ripples go out from an underwater spring, so the forms of the universe expand in circles from this source.

Her guts felt like they’d fallen out of her as she traced a circle, over and over, in the ancient grime on the floor. The Red Death stepped off his platform and stood above her, sword drawn. She stared slack-jawed and drooling at the circle’s unbreakable form, its completion.

The hero blessed by the father returns to represent the father among men. As teacher (Moses) or as emperor (Huang Ti), his word is law. Since he is now centered in the source, he makes visible the repose and harmony of the central place. He is a reflection of the World Axis from which the concentric circles spread—the World Mountain, the World Tree—he is the perfect microcosmic mirror of the macrocosm. To see him is to perceive the meaning of existence. From his presence boons go out; his word is the wind of life.

Her guts felt like they’d fallen out of her as she traced a circle, over and over, in the ancient grime on the floor. The Red Death stepped off his platform and stood above her, sword drawn. She stared slack-jawed and drooling at the circle’s unbreakable form, its completion.

The equating of a single year in Paradise to one hundred of earthly existence is a motif well known to myth. The full round of one hundred signifies totality. Similarly, the three hundred and sixty degrees of the circle signify totality; accordingly the Hindu Puranas represent one year of the gods as equal to three hundred and sixty of men. From the standpoint of the Olympians, eon after eon of earthly history rolls by, revealing ever the har- monious form of the total round, so that where men see only change and death, the blessed behold immutable form, world without end.

Her guts felt like they’d fallen out of her as she traced a circle, over and over, in the ancient grime on the floor. The Red Death stepped off his platform and stood above her, sword drawn. She stared slack-jawed and drooling at the circle’s unbreakable form, its completion.

time and time again: lives by the multitude: all suffering: each bounded in the tenuous, tight circle of itself—lashing, killing, hating, and desiring peace beyond victory: these all are the children, the mad figures of the transitory yet inex- haustible, long world dream of the All-Regarding

Her guts felt like they’d fallen out of her as she traced a circle, over and over, in the ancient grime on the floor. The Red Death stepped off his platform and stood above her, sword drawn. She stared slack-jawed and drooling at the circle’s unbreakable form, its completion.

~

The second hand swept ominously over the 12 points of the clock’s face, Lockswell stopping it at 10 o'clock by placing the pad back onto his heart. “Yeah, that works.”

There was a noise of creaking metal in the other room, Maurice put his contraption down and peered out the door. “Oh hey.”

“Hello Mo,” replied Taïkur. “Where is everyone?”

“Through here,” he gestured towards the workshop as they entered.

“Hello Jacques,” Taïkur “waved” with the four fingers that weren’t holding a bag.

John nodded as Taïkur placed the bags down on the workshop table.

“Did you get everything?” said Lockswell, reaching into a bag and taking out the protective layer of actual groceries.

“Corach’s guy didn’t have the potassium chlorate today but I’m sure I have some left over.”

“Why not?” said Lockswell, gently shaking a jar of powder labelled “DO NOT SHAKE”.

“Apparently their source at the chemical plant buckled and threatened to alert the authorities.”

Lockswell looked back at Taïkur and sucked in air through his teeth. “Oooooohh.”

Taïkur nodded. “He’s dead now.” He took the jar from Lockswell and carefully placed it back in its bag. “I’m just going to start in a bit. When do you want dinner?”

“Ummm,” Lockswell turned his attention back to his device. “I just ate not long ago. Ask John.”

Taïkur left the workshop and audibly kicked open the heavy door to his lab.

“Now,” said Lockswell, looking over the mess of parts on the table. “Where were we?”

“You and John,” said John.

“Oh yeah, so: we’d been unofficially seeing eachother for about a month at this point, but we only actually became a ‘thing’ when-”

~

The Red Death placed a foot on John’s chest. “For your cowardice in the face of awe, you will face oblivion.” He raised the burning scimitar of Nazir Al-Zahabi above his head, and from a vine on the roof Maurice Lockswell swung and kicked the robed man into the water, extinguishing the sword which fell from his hand and into the water. John found the strength to push herself up and sit watching as Maurice Lockswell, son of Robert and descendant of James picked up the red scimitar. “What’s the matter, Elder Anthem?” he spun the sword acrobatically, casting the water off in drops. “You’re not looking so hot.” He pointed the scimitar at the Elder as it exploded back into burning light.

“You fool!” cried the Elder, pulling off his mask. “Do you know nothing of symbol or ritual? Of metaphor?”

“Does that look like metaphor to you?” He gestured towards John, cradling her wounds.

“The initiation is a baptism by fire, you dull ape!” the Elder spat. (The sword flared.) “We are not here to embolden the mediocre, we wish to turn children into warriors!”

“Yeah? Well,” Lockswell strode towards the Elder, who attempted to crawl backwards through the water. “Be careful what you wish for.”

He swung his sword at the man’s head and it cut through the fabric of his empty hood. The Elder’s robes collapsed into the water. Lockswell watched as they sank into the knee-deep water, vanishing below his reflection.

“What the fuck?” muttered John Boss as she struggled not to fall back. Lockswell ran over and knelt beside her.

“What did they do to you?”

“Mo,” she held his face in her bloody hands. “He drugged me, I’m hallucinating.”

“I’m here, it’s fine. You’re safe now.”

“Are you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you here? He vanished, he had fire and the sword…”

“No you’re not seeing things John,” he said. “I’m here. I’m real. This is real.”

“Tell me,” John murmured.

“What?”

“Tell me something only Mo Lockswell would know.”

Maurice thought for a moment. He looked at her and hesitated, uncharacteristically, for a moment, and then he kissed her. “Does that feel real?”

“Never,” she grinned, her limbs going heavy as if sinking into a dream.

~

If the hero in his triumph wins the blessing of the goddess or the god and is then explicitly commissioned to return to the world with some elixir for the restoration of society, the final stage of his adventure is supported by all the powers of his supernatural patron.

John faded in and out of consciousness for some period of time, as if with the movements of a soft wave on the shore. She felt Lockswell’s arms around her and her feet not touching the ground, she could open her eyes a little and see him looking ahead and steadfast as he walked through ancient stone chambers roasted with orange torches along the walls, through a corridor where (inevitably, she thought) giant swinging axes hung from the roof but remained still, for someone had jammed the gears above by throwing in the sticky, glowing fungus that grew in the next room.

On the other hand, if the trophy has been attained against the opposition of its guardian, or if the hero's wish to return to the world has been resented by the gods or demons, then the last stage of the mythological round becomes a lively, often comical, pursuit. This flight may be complicated by marvels of magical obstruction and evasion.

She was lying on the floor and groggily opened her eyes again. Lockswell stood at the edge of a platform, brandishing his flaming sword. He was at the beginning of a rope bridge, but the abyss it crossed was filled with smoke. Shifting with the movements of the fog, as if projected from some unseen source, a many-eyed creature stroked its chin and tested the warrior with riddles. She passed out again.

…it betokens too a conviction of the waking mind that the reality of the deep is not belied by that of common day. This is the sign of the hero's requirement, now, to knit together his two worlds. The remainder of the long story of Kamar al-Zaman is a history of the slow yet wonderful operation of a destiny that has been summoned into life.

Not everyone has a destiny: only the hero who has plunged to touch it, and has come up again — with a ring.

Light shone red through her closed eyelids, she opened one eye for a moment to find herself being carried out of the cave and towards a circle of golden sun. She felt arms around her and could hear the sea beating against a cliff face as she properly awoke.

“Where am I?” She asked as she rubbed sleep out of her eyes.

“There’s a way into the caves through this entrance in the cliffs, and a way out,” said Lockswell. “Carai’s coming to pick us up by boat, and then we’re going to get your wounds properly treated.” His anger was quietly audible beneath his stone expression.

“What was that? Everything?” she tried to sit up properly but was overcome by agony in her side.

“Try to stay still for now, you’ll be okay soon,” he said as he held her, his arms at once a comfort and a restraint. “I don’t know what the fuck he was playing at. He could have killed you. Maybe he would have.”

“Why? Was that the initiation?” she moaned, holding her splitting headache in her hand.

“No. Not the real one anyway. I think he was trying to prove a point. He thinks you’re young and reckless, he doesn’t think you’re ready.”

“He drugged me,” she fell into him. “How the fuck does that prove anything? It’s not fair!”

“If that old witch-doctor Soka were here he’d tell you it’s not meant to be fair, it’s meant to be a story: a ritual-tale about a reckless youth who isn’t ready to cross over into the adult world or some shit. Whatever he gave you knocked you out, just as he was holding the sword above you.”

“Mock execution,” muttered John.

“They still fucking stabbed you.”

“How did you know I was there? Where to find me?” she asked.

“I didn’t.”

“Why were you in the caves then?”

“My initiation.”

John was silent, remembering the words of the Elder, the recurring prophecy of the hero and his passage into maturity by his retrieval of a magical gift from the depths of the dark world below. “Oh.”

A small boat arrived shortly, a black dot on the golden-yellow and pink sea carrying friends and allies who’d come to help and heal her. The thought was of little comfort.

A doctor laid her flat on the rocks, propping her head up on a folded coat. “Okay John, I’m going to remove your bandage and take a look at the wound on your side, okay?”

~

“That is nice as fuck!” John grinned as she entered the bunker’s main chamber. She leaned over the table and inspected Lockswell’s contraption.

“It’s one of my finest pieces,” replied Lockswell, arms folded as he wandered around the bomb. “May we never have to use it.”

“When will you be ready to go?” asked John.

~

“Soon, depending on how fast you’ll let me leave,” replied Taïkur.

The woman laughed in shallow plumes of cigarette smoke. “Depends,” she smiled. “How long can you stay?” She unsubtly pulled the sash of her dressing gown loose.

“You know I’m a man of god, Tharra,” he smiled.

“And not one of the boring ones!” she held the cigarette between her lips as she tried to pull a bag away from him and put in on the counter. Taïkur pulled back. “You look awful serious,” she said, her smile fading. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s fine,” he placed the bags down with surgical care.

“What’s in there?” she asked, putting the cigarette out in one of many ashtrays littered about the house.

“Work stuff,” said Taïkur.

She awkwardly tied her dressing gown tight. “Oh.”

“Sorry-”

“No, no. I should’ve known you were…busy.”

“We can still-”

“No, I’m…” she folded her arms.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “Do you want to just…watch TV or something? I’ve got stuff to make tea.”

She nodded, adjusting her hair behind her ear. “Yeah, that’d be nice.”

Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - King Zaedar is Introduced, He Learns of Our Hero’s Exploits in Issue #2, and A Mysterious Force Awakens™ From The Depths of The Ancient Past
Chapter 2 - John Boss - Incredibly - Escapes from "The White Palace of Death”, Shoots A BUNCH of Dudes, and Makes His Way to The Relative Safety of Dryadora’s Coal District
Chapter 3 - Dhubagèl Escorts Aerin Through The Sewers of Dryadora, But Maybe Also His Subconscious? What I Mean is We Get to Know More About This Previously Mysterious and At Points Unsettling Character, and The Subterranean Setting is Associated - in Jungian Psychoanalysis - With The Subconscious, So That Works
Chapter 4 - That Relatively Sedate Chapter Was Just a Break from The All-Important Action! As John Boss and Chel Make Their Way Through The Coal District In Their Attempt to Find Safe Refuge, But Not Without The Police Giving Chase
Chapter 5 - John Boss, Aerin Liette, Dhubagèl Shaen, Chel Hagar, and More are Finally United, and Ready to Strike Back Against King Zaedar’s Brutal Regime
Chapter 6 - The Past 30 Years of Aerin's Life Are Unlived for the Sake of the Plot, by Which I Mean Primarily the Plot of This Book, but Also the Plot Which the Red Hand Formulate in This Chapter, Which - If That Wasn't Obvious to You, Reader - Is a Clever Bit of Wordplay on the Similarities between The "Diegetic" Rebellion's Plot Which Requires Sacrifice, in a Very Fatalistic, Heroic Sort of Way, and The "Non-Diegetic" Aristotelian Plot Structure Which Requires Sacrifice in a Very Ritualistic “High-Maintenance Volcano God” Sort of Way
Chapter 7 - In a ‘Baroque Formalism’ Power Move, Four Conversations between John Boss the 34th and the Three Members of the Dryadora Red Hand Cell Are Intercut with a Scene of Domestic Mundanity, and a Scene of Great Heroism Which Is Also a Flashback into the past of John Boss the 41st. For the Purposes of Light Genre Parody, a Minor Character Has a Silly Name; A Minor Character Waits for a Bus, Which Doesn't Actually Move the Plot Forward or Contribute to The Themeing in Any Meaningful Way, And a Minor Character Mentions Things from Wurld’s past but Doesn’t Explain Them, Which Gives You That Kind of High-Fantasy Texture without the Bogged-Downedness That Comes with Fields of Exposition: All the Flavour of Fantasy with None of the Nutrition, and I Think That's Beautiful
Chapter 8 - The Night before the Operation, Aerin — Overcome by Insomnia — Hides Away in His Study and Distracts Himself from His Fear of Tomorrow's Events with the Comforting Familiarity of His Self-Loathing. Kreida Tries to Comfort Him and the Two End up Comparing Notes on a Relationship Forged under the Crucible Pressures of Mental Illness. It's Actually Really Nice.
Chapter 9 - There's a Flashback to an Episode from Chel Hagar's past with Revealing Parallels to Another Episode from Chel Hagar's Past: Chapter 7 of Issue #2. You Might Assume This Is Our Only Reason for Jumping Back a Few Years in Time, but Only If You Pay Attention Will You Notice That We're Subtly Reminding You of and Expanding on the Sub-Sub-Plot of Dryadora and / or the Whole Elvin Empire's failing Electricity System, Because That's Going to Be Important Later. We Then Seamlessly Transition into the Red Hand Cell's Infiltration of the DTV Station Where the Tapes of What Actually Happened in the Arena Are Kept. Being the End of Act II / Beginning of Act III, Things Go a Bit Skiwhiff and the Chapter Ends on a Thrilling Cliffhanger That You'll Have to Wait 'Til next Sunday to See Resolved!
Chapter 10 - Aerin and Krieda Spend Most of the Day in Dryadora's Pearl District, a Nice Day out Which Is Actually a Ruse by Aerin to Get near the Arena Where the Prime Minister Is Making His Speech. Krieda Is Conveniently Scheduled to Visit Her Parents in the Afternoon, so This Gives Aerin the Perfect Opportunity for a Heartbreaking Goodbye Scene before He Goes to Infiltrate the Press Crowd and Place Lockswell's Signal Jammer on the DTV Van's Satellite. Aerin and Dhubagèl Engage in Some Breathtakingly Suspenseful Scenes of Social Deception, but Are They Wily Enough to Avoid Detection by the Already On-Edge Members of the Prime Minister's Elite Guard? Also, How Good Was Doctor Who Last Night?
Chapter 11 - The Red Hand Defend the Control Room as Their Broadcast Goes out to the World. They Flee, and after a High-Octane Chase Scene They Escape into the Forests. All Hope Seems Lost, but Then They Are Saved by a Mysterious Character from an Earlier Point in the Story in a Way That Is Surprising but, Crucially, Still Made Inevitable by the Aristotelian Clockwork We've Established up until This Point. I Liked This Week's Doctor Who a Lot More Than Frank Cottrell-Boyce's Last Episode. It's Good That We're Getting More Fully-Realised Alien Planets In The Show Again
Chapter 12 - The Twelfth One