Tuesday, February 22, 2011


“And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I don’t know why I picked this one up. I’d heard of it—in a vague, almost misty kind of way. A book written by a health care professional who works with the terminally ill, documenting what she learned about how the human animal approaches and eventually accepts its own death. That sounds fascinating to me, but this is not that book. Well, not really.

She has a chart. The chart shows the five stages of dying: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. And she has transcripts of long interviews with patients, supposedly in each one of these stages. Except the interviews…

…were purposely left unedited and unabbreviated and demonstrate moments when we were perceptive of a patient’s implicit or explicit communications and times when we did not react in the most responsive manner. The part that cannot be shared with the reader is the experience that one has during such a dialogue: the many nonverbal communications that go on constantly between patient and physician, physician and chaplain, or patient and chaplain; the sighs, wet eyes, the smiles, gestures with the hands, the empty look, the astonished glance, or the outstretched hands—all communications of significance which often go beyond words.

That’s probably the crux of my problem. Call me weird, but I didn’t pick up the book for unedited interviews that don’t reveal anything. Based on its title and its reputation, I picked it up for…oh, what’s the phrase? Communications of significance which often go beyond words.

The book is also a relic. A relic from a time when health care professionals feared the mortality of their patients.

During my last visit to Mr. X., I saw that this usually dignified man was furious. He said over and over again to his nurse, “You lied to me,” staring at her in angry disbelief. I asked him the reason for this outburst. He tried to tell me that she had put the siderails up as soon as he asked to be put in an upright position so that he could put his legs out of bed “once more.” This communication was interrupted several times by the nurse, who, equally angry, stated her side of the story, namely, that she had to put the siderails up in order to get help to fulfill his demands. A loud argument ensued during which the nurse’s anger was perhaps best expressed in her statement: “If I had left them down, you would have fallen out of bed and cracked your head open.” If we look at this incident again in an attempt to understand the reactions rather than to judge them, we must realize that this nurse also used avoidance by sitting in a corner reading paperbacks and “at all costs” tried to keep the patient quiet. She was deeply uncomfortable in taking care of a terminally ill patient and never faced him voluntarily or attempted to have a dialogue with him. She did her “duty” by sitting in the same room, but emotionally she was as far detached from him as possible. This was the only way this woman was able to do this job. She wished him dead (“crack your head open”) and made explicit demands on him to lie still and quiet on his back (as if he were already in a casket). She was indignant when he asked to be moved, which for him was a sign of still being alive and which she wanted to deny. She was obviously so terrified by the closeness of death that she had to defend herself against it with avoidance and isolation. Her wish to have him quiet and not move only reinforced the patient’s fear of immobility and death. He was deprived of communication, lonely and isolated as well as utterly helpless in his agony and increasing anger. When his last demand was met with an initially increased restriction (the symbolic locking him up with the siderails raised), his previously unexpressed rage gave way to this unfortunate incident. If the nurse had not felt so guilty about her own destructive wishes, she probably would have been less defensive and argumentative, thus preventing the incident from happening in the first place and allowing the patient to express his feelings and to die a bit more comfortable a few hours later.

From a time when clergy hid behind their doctrine and rituals rather than face the reality that surrounded them.

What amazed me, however, was the number of clergy who felt quite comfortable using a prayer book or a chapter out of the Bible as the sole communication between them and the patients, thus avoiding listening to their needs and being exposed to questions they might be unable or unwilling to answer.

Many of them had visited innumerable very sick people but began for the first time, in the seminar, really to deal with the question of death and dying. They were very occupied with funeral procedures and their role during and after the funeral but had great difficulties in actually dealing with the dying person himself.

They often used the doctor’s orders “not to tell” or the ever existing presence of a family member as an excuse for not really communicating with the terminally ill patients. It was in the course of repeated encounters that they began to understand their own reluctance of facing the conflicts and thus their use of the Bible, the relative, or the doctor’s orders as an excuse or rationalization for their lack of involvement.

From a time when adults had a strange, childlike sense of morality.

As I say, I had always been a good boy. I didn’t swear, I didn’t use vile language, I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t particularly care for them. I didn’t chase women, very much, that is, and I was always a pretty good boy.

Oh, wait. That’s largely how things still are. How depressing.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

This is one of those books which, coming to it fresh and with really no knowledge of Shaw and his writing, the introduction is indispensible in understanding what the author is trying to accomplish in the text that follows. In this volume, the introduction comes in the form of an “epistle dedicatory,” a letter, to Shaw’s friend and dramatic critic Arthur Bingham Walkley. In it, Shaw writes:

The world shewn us in books, whether the books be confessed epics or professed gospels, or in codes, or in political orations, or in philosophic systems, is not the main world at all: it is only the self-consciousness of certain abnormal people who have the specific artistic talent and temperament. A serious matter this for you and me, because the man whose consciousness does not correspond to that of the majority is a madman; and the old habit of worshipping madmen is giving way to the new habit of locking them up. And since what we call education and culture is for the most part nothing but the substitution of reading for experience, of literature for life, of the obsolete fictitious for the contemporary real, education, as you no doubt observed at Oxford, destroys, by supplantation, every mind that is not strong enough to see through the imposture and to use the great Masters of Arts as what they really are and no more: that is, patentees of highly questionable methods of thinking, and manufacturers of highly questionable, and for the majority but half valid representations of life. The schoolboy who uses his Homer to throw at his fellow’s head makes perhaps the safest and most rational use of him; and I observe with reassurance that you occasionally do the same, in your prime, with your Aristotle.

Wow. It’s an interesting and complicated web that Shaw weaves in Man and Superman, and this passage is one of the keys to understanding it all. “Supermen” have been sought and identified throughout history, those of each generation believing that they are the ultimate (or perhaps the penultimate) realization of a new form of humanity, wholly and irrevocably different (and better) than the infinite masses of decaying flesh and ideas that came before them.

But does any man seriously believe that the chauffer who drives a motor car from Paris to Berlin is a more highly evolved man than the charioteer of Achilles, or that a modern Prime Minister is a more enlightened ruler than Caesar because he rides a tricycle, writes his dispatches by the electric light, and instructs his stockbroker through the telephone?

Yes, many people do, but Shaw doesn’t. Shaw understands that the vast teeming masses of today’s humanity is not fundamentally different than the vast teeming masses of humanity that existed in Ancient Rome, or even on the prehistoric savannahs of Africa. And those who believe they are Supermen, or who can bring about a race of Supermen through education or tyranny, are wrong and always will be. Given the nature of man, this ideal is not attainable, and those who seek to foment the necessary revolution should heed Shaw’s words:

Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder.

In other words, since Supermen will always ever be a tiny minority of the population, focused on a societal ideal completely foreign to the millions of men that surround them, any revolution led by them is doomed to end in failure or tyranny.

Now, in the play, there is just such a revolutionist who supposedly wrote most of the words I’ve just quoted—in a “Revolutionist’s Handbook” that Shaw has included as a kind of appendix to Man and Superman. This revolutionist is a self-fashioned Superman named Mr. John Tanner, a gentleman of leisure who spends a good deal of his time rebelling and quoting philosophic aphorisms against the standard and everyday morality of the rest of the characters in the play. Shaw, I believe, is having a bit of fun with the character of John Tanner, using him as a kind of literary experiment, testing the worthiness of Tanner’s revolutionary ideas in the crucible of the drama as he creates it. In this belief, I was again tipped off by a comment he made in his introduction:

Not that I disclaim the fullest responsibility for his [Tanner’s] opinions and for those of all my characters, pleasant and unpleasant. They are all right from their several points of view; and their points of view are, for the dramatic moment, mine also. This may puzzle the people who believe that there is such a thing as an absolutely right point of view, usually their own. It may seem to them that nobody who doubts this can be in a state of grace. However that may be, it is certainly true that nobody who agrees with them can possibly be a dramatist, or indeed anything else that turns upon a knowledge of mankind. Hence it has been pointed out that Shakespear had no conscience. Neither have I, in that sense.

 It’s something I did a fair amount of—to a far less literate degree—in Farchrist Tales, as I forced Gil to struggle with the philosophic reality of his world so I could see how far some of those ideas could be stretched in mine. It seems that Shaw is doing very much the same thing with Tanner in Man and Superman, even giving him authorship of a complete handbook of revolutionary ideas as a primary weapon with which to do battle.

Like Tanner’s speech, his handbook is full of political and philosophical aphorisms. Here’s a smattering of the ones that most struck my fancy:

A movement which is confined to philosophers and honest men can never exercise any real political influence: there are too few of them. Until a movement shews itself capable of spreading among brigands, it can never hope for a political majority.

+ + +

The savage bows down to idols of wood and stone: the civilized man to idols of flesh and blood.

+ + +

Whilst we have prisons it matters little which of us occupy the cells.

+ + +

You cannot believe in honor until you have achieved it. Better keep yourself clean and bright: you are the window through which you must see the world.

+ + +

We admit that when the divinity we worshipped made itself visible and comprehensible we crucified it.

+ + +

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

+ + +

The man who listens to Reason is lost: Reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her.

As you read it, this handbook actually creates kind of its own puzzle for interpreting Shaw’s purpose and meaning in writing Man and Superman. Despite Shaw’s claim in the introduction that he has no conscience—that there is no absolutely right point of view—I can’t help but question if the Superman that Shaw clearly thought himself to be hadn’t decided to cleverly couch his own beliefs in these scribbling of his fictional character. They are certainly radical—calling, as they do, for human eugenics controlled by the few Supermen who have so far emerged among us—so perhaps he thought by more closely aligning them with Tanner they would be less likely to inflame the passions of the throngs of regular men he has warned us about, those who would never allow such a program to take place. Yet, in the guise of fiction, Shaw would have the additional luxury of inflating the ideas for greater dramatic effect, further obscuring them from the reality he held dear. Tanner’s ideas could diverge from Shaw’s own in any number of places, and we would be unlikely to know the difference. Such subterfuge may be necessary because after all, as Shaw—or Tanner—himself says in the handbook:

…the world must remain a den of dangerous animals among whom our few accidental supermen, our Shakespears, Goethes, Shelleys, and their like, must live as precariously as lion tamers do, taking the humor of this situation, and the dignity of their superiority, as a set-off to the horror of the one and the loneliness of the other.

In many ways, I think Shaw  views himself exactly this way, as a lion tamer, and Man and Superman is one of his attempts to take in the humor of that difficult situation.

But maybe that’s overanalyzing things too much.

The drama itself seems to turn on two fundamental concepts. The first is closely aligned with what I’ve discussed so far—there is no absolutely correct way of looking at things, just the popular and the unpopular, and the unpopular, whatever its relative merits to the popular, and however “super” the men are who advocate it, will always lose out. Tanner is the embodiment of this concept, clinging fast to his unpopular views, but prescient enough to know that they are ultimately just another way of interpreting the world.

That’s one major theme. The other is, well... Here’s how Tanner describes it:

TANNER. Of all human struggles there is none so treacherous and remorseless as the struggle between the artist man and the mother woman. Which shall use up the other? That is the issue between them. And it is all the deadlier because, in your romanticist cant, they love each other.

I won’t even pretend that I understand it fully. Shaw devotes a good portion of his epistle dedicatory to explaining this dramatic element, which he believes fashions Man and Superman as the kind of “Don Juan play” Walkley has evidently asked for. Perhaps it’s better if I try to come at it through the dramatic dialogue rather than Shaw’s explanation of it.

Tanner returns to this theme continuously, that women and the natural procreative urgings represent a dire and deadly danger to the creative aspirations of man. He desperately tries to caution his young friend Octavius to avoid the passion that inflates his breast for the play’s “everywoman” Ann.

TANNER. You think you are Ann’s suitor; that you are the pursuer and she is the pursued; that it is your part to woo, to persuade, to prevail, to overcome. Fool: it is you who are the pursued, the marked down quarry, the destined prey. You need not sit looking longingly at the bait through the wires of the trap: the door is open, and will remain so until it shuts behind you forever.

OCTAVIUS. I wish I could believe that, vilely as you put it.

TANNER. Why, man, what other work has she in life but to get a husband? It is a woman’s business to get married as soon as possible, and a man’s to keep unmarried as long as he can. You have your poems and your tragedies to work at: Ann has nothing.


TANNER. Tavy: that’s the devilish side of a woman’s fascination: she makes you will your own destruction.

OCTAVIUS. But it’s not destruction: it’s fulfillment.

TANNER. Yes, of her purpose; and that purpose is neither her happiness nor yours, but Nature’s. Vitality in a woman is a blind fury of creation. She sacrifices herself to it: do you think she will hesitate to sacrifice you?

To Tanner, the predator and prey metaphors are legion. The charms of women are but a trap, a restraint on his freedom to pursue the sublime pleasures of philosophy and revolution. When Octavius pines for the eternal happiness he would find in marrying the object of his affection, Tanner chides:

TANNER. Yes, a lifetime of happiness. If it were only the first half hour’s happiness, Tavy, I would buy it for you with my last penny. But a lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.

And this is an interesting comment given the dramatic license Shaw takes in the third act, transporting characters in his play to hell in the guise of other figures—Tanner himself in the guise of Don Juan—where it is revealed through intricate dialogue that heaven is only heaven to the Supermen. The sublime eternal pleasures offered there are only appealing to those few that seek them. To the vast majority interested in more earthly pleasures, hell is the much more accommodating place. Here, Tanner (as Don Juan), tries to convince Ann (as Ana, a woman Juan once seduced) to stay in hell and not yearn for heaven.

DON JUAN. Then you must stay here; for hell is the home of the unreal and of the seekers for happiness. It is the only refuge from heaven, which is, as I tell you, the home of the masters of reality, and from earth, which is the home of the slaves of reality. The earth is a nursery in which men and women play at being heroes and heroines, saints and sinners; but they are dragged down from their fool’s paradise by their bodies: hunger and cold and thirst, age and decay and disease, death above all, make them slaves of reality: thrice a day meals must be eaten and digested: thrice a century a new generation must be engendered: ages of faith, of romance, and of science are all driven at last to have but one prayer “Make me a healthy animal.” But here you escape this tyranny of the flesh; for here you are not an animal at all: you are a ghost, and appearance, an illusion, a convention, deathless, ageless: in a word, bodiless. There are no social questions here, no political questions, no religious questions, best of all, perhaps, no sanitary questions. Here you call your appearance beauty, your emotions love, your sentiments heroism, your aspirations virtue, just as you did on earth; but here there are no hard facts to contradict you, no ironic contrast of your needs with your pretensions, no human comedy, nothing but a perpetual romance, a universal melodrama. As our German friend put it in his poem, “the poetically nonsensical here is good sense; and the Eternal Feminine draws us ever upward and on”—without getting us a step farther. And yet you want to leave this paradise!

ANA. But if hell be so beautiful as this, how glorious must heaven be!

The Devil, the Statue, and Don Juan all begin to speak at once in violent protest; then stop, abashed.

DON JUAN. I beg your pardon.

THE DEVIL. Not at all. I interrupted you.

THE STATUE. You were going to say something.

DON JUAN. After you, gentlemen.

THE DEVIL [to Don Juan] You have been so eloquent on the advantages of my dominions that I leave you to do equal justice to the drawbacks of the alternative establishment.

DON JUAN. In heaven, as I picture it, dear lady, you live and work instead of playing and pretending. You face things as they are; you escape nothing but glamour; and your steadfastness and your peril are your glory. If the play still goes on here and on earth, and all the world is a stage. Heaven is at least behind the scenes. But heaven cannot be described by metaphor. Thither I shall go presently, because there I hope to escape at last from lies and from the tedious, vulgar pursuit of happiness, to spend my eons in contemplation.


DON JUAN. Senor Commander: I do not blame your disgust: a picture gallery is a dull place for a blind man.

And as these arguments continue, Shaw’s tension between the artist man and mother woman is further revealed, in both allegory and fact. There are stretches in which the characters argue about what is natural, and which of these two philosophies best embody it.

DON JUAN. Nature, my dear lady, is what you call immoral. I blush for it; but I cannot help it. Nature is a pandar, Time as wrecker, and Death a murderer. I have always preferred to stand up to those facts and build institutions on their recognition. You prefer to propitiate the three devils by proclaiming their chastity, their thrift, and their loving kindness; and to base your institutions on these flatteries. Is it any wonder that the institutions do not work smoothly?

Touche. And finally, there are full-on forays into political philosophy, the most eloquent declarations of which are given to The Devil is Shaw’s metaphoric third act.

THE DEVIL. In the old chronicles you read of earthquakes and pestilences, and are told that these shewed the power and majesty of God and the littleness of Man. Nowadays the chronicles describe battles. In a battle two bodies of men shoot at one another with bullets and explosive shells until one body runs away, when the others chase the fugitives on horseback and cut them to pieces as they fly. And this, the chronicle concludes, shews the greatness and majesty of empires, and the littleness of the vanquished. Over such battles the people run about the streets yelling with delight, and egg their Governments on to spend hundreds of millions of money in the slaughter, whilst the strongest Ministers dare not spend an extra penny in the pound against the poverty and pestilence through which they themselves daily walk. I could give you a thousand instances; but they all come to the same thing: the power that governs the earth is not the power of Life but of Death; and the inner need that has served Life to the effort of organizing itself into the human being is not the need for higher life but for a more efficient engine of destruction. The plague, the famine, the earthquake, the tempest were too spasmodic in their action; the tiger and crocodile were too easily satiated and not cruel enough: something more constantly, more ruthlessly, more ingeniously destructive was needed; and that something was Man, the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, the electric chair; of sword and gun and poison gas: above all, of justice, duty, patriotism, and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers.

Ouch. Take that, modern day patriots. Shaw does this throughout the text, turning ideas on their head as if to see if they look any better with their asses in the air. And the Devil, he sees such vacillation of perspective as part of the natural order of things, as the thing that swells men with passion in the short-term, but which tires the philosopher with a longer-term perspective with its tired repeatability. As he explains to Don Juan:

THE DEVIL. But I will now go further, and confess to you that men get tired of everything, of heaven no less than of hell; and that all history is nothing but a record of the oscillations of the world between these two extremes. An epoch is but a swing of the pendulum; and each generation thinks the world is progressing because it is always moving. But when you are as old as I am; when you have a thousand times wearied of heaven, like myself and the Commander, and a thousand times wearied of hell, as you are wearied now, you will no longer imagine that every swing from heaven to hell is an emancipation, every swing from hell to heaven an evolution. Where you now see reform, progress, fulfillment of upward tendency, continual ascent by Man on the stepping stones of his dead selves to higher things, you will see nothing but an infinite comedy of illusion.

Like Man evidently, the pendulum swings, but whichever side it’s on, and whichever Superman is pushing it, it only rises so far and never transcends the arc that defines it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Chapter Seven


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 33,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When my grandfather, Gildegarde Brisbane, was eighteen, he was selected by the priests as the first Riser. They said that devotion such as his was rare in a man so young and that, with continued dedication to Grecolus and his laws, my grandfather was destined for greatness. While serving his squireship under Sir Gregorovich Farchrist II, it was his job to perform all the menial tasks his Knight gave him. Care of the weapons, tending of the horses, shining the armor—Gregorovich II was known to say that he never before had met a man who threw so much of himself into everything he did. It was as if the young Brisbane only wanted to do the best he could do.

+   +   +

Roundtower awoke near sunset. He emerged from the tent with the look of health and the complaint of hunger. Brisbane went about heating him up what was left of the stew. Roystnof and Shortwhiskers sat stiffly nearby, as if afraid to ask Roundtower about his ordeal.

Roundtower began to eat and an oppressive silence hung around the campfire.

“Ignatius,” Roystnof said, his voice sounding too loud over the crackling firewood. “Do you remember what happened to you?”

“Yes,” Roundtower said in a distant voice, not looking up at the wizard. “But I do not understand it.”

“Do you remember the creature you saw in the garden?” Roystnof said. “The large lizard you were going to point out to Nog?”

“Yes,” Roundtower said, speaking into his stew. “It was brown and it had eight legs. And its eyes. Its eyes…” He trailed off.

“Ignatius,” Roystnof said. “It is called a basilisk. It has the power to turn men to stone by its gaze. When you looked into its eyes, you were so effected. You have been standing as a statue of stone in that garden for more than two weeks. Nog witnessed your transformation and came to me with the news. It is my magic that has freed you. Do you understand what has happened? Do you understand what I am telling you?”

Roundtower lifted his head and gave the wizard a long stare. He then looked at Shortwhiskers, who nodded his head in verification. Roundtower swallowed hard and mumbled very quietly to himself.

“I thought I had died.”

Only Brisbane was close enough to hear these words.

“You must remember,” Roystnof went on, “who you are and what your life has meant before this transformation took place. Now, is there anything—”

“Roystnof,” Roundtower said, snapping into a normal tone of voice and cutting the wizard off. “I appreciate what you have done for me, and what you are trying to do now. It is hard for me to accept what has happened. I have never heard of such a creature that can turn men to stone, but I can only trust what you say as the truth. The time I then spent as stone,” his voice faltered, “was difficult and trying for me on a very personal level. I expect it will be some time before I am over the experience. But I do remember who I am, and I have every intention of continuing on with the natural course of my life.”

Roystnof said he was glad to hear Roundtower speak so, and quickly dismissed the subject out of respect for the warrior’s wishes. Shortwhiskers then commenced in telling Roundtower all that had happened since his original transformation to stone. The dwarf’s search for Roystnof, his meeting Brisbane—whom he called Parkinson as Brisbane himself had done to Roundtower—the journey to the garden, and the process of transforming Roundtower from stone back to his own flesh. Intentionally, or so Brisbane thought at the time, the dwarf left out the part about Roystnof teaching Brisbane how to cast shocking grasp. It really wasn’t all that important to the story, as Brisbane had not used the knowledge in the one circumstance when it might have proved helpful. The battle with the ogres, however, was the only part of the story where Roundtower showed any true enthusiasm.

When Shortwhiskers finished his tale, Roystnof brought up the subject of exploring the garden in the morning.

“I am very curious,” the wizard said, “about the stone structure that Nog saw at the center. I am sure it will at least give us a clue as to why this oasis is here.”

“But what about the basilisk?” Roundtower asked.

“It is an obstacle like any other,” Roystnof said. “I am confident it can be avoided or overcome.”

“I would not like to be turned to stone again,” Roundtower said. “And what of the three of you?”

“Anyone,” Roystnof said, “who has the misfortune of being turned to stone, I will be able to transform back.”

“And you?” Brisbane said. “What do we do if you meet the monster’s gaze?”

There was a silent pause before Roystnof answered.

“I will not.”

Brisbane and the others could not argue with such conviction, although Brisbane found it a bit foolhardy. He had known Roystnof for a long time, but was just now beginning to see another side of him. Brisbane was not sure he liked it.

“I suggest,” Roystnof said, “that we vote. I say we investigate the stone structure tomorrow. Nog?”

Shortwhiskers nodded. “My curiosity has been tickled. I will go with you.”


Brisbane looked at Roundtower before he answered. The warrior was clearly wrestling with the decision. “I will go as well, Roy.”

Roystnof smiled. “And Ignatius?”

“Friends,” Roundtower said in an ominous tone. “For a reason I do not understand, I feel compelled to join you in this endeavor. Perhaps, inwardly, I wish my revenge on this basilisk, but the reason is really not important, for I am coming along.”

Brisbane was relieved to hear this. He was already beginning to like Ignatius Roundtower and wanted
to get to know him better. Both Roystnof and Shortwhiskers were wearing broad smiles.

“However,” Roundtower continued. “I must say that this will be the last such adventure we will share. Something happened in the time I spent as stone that has made me realize the path my life has taken. This experience has allowed me to see how I have lost sight of my own dreams. I will join you on this one last excursion, and then put an end to this part of my life. Afterwards, I will leave for Farchrist Castle, and start my squireship as soon as one of the good Knights will have me.”

No one seemed pleased with Roundtower’s decision, Shortwhiskers perhaps getting more emotional than he would have wanted to appear, but Roundtower held firmly to his words. Roystnof suggested that they get some sleep before the morning and Shortwhiskers reluctantly agreed, grumbling that he would have a hard time falling asleep. Roundtower volunteered to stand first watch, as he had slept most of the day away. Brisbane felt a little foolish remembering that they had forgotten to post a watch the previous night. Of course, it had been pouring rain. Roundtower surprised Brisbane when he asked the young man to sit up with him for a while.

Roundtower sat down on a large rock and Brisbane settled on a smaller one next to him. The warrior gazed up at the first twinkling stars for an extended moment. Brisbane sat and stared at him. Roundtower was out of his armor now and wore clothing so plain they could only be meant to cover his nakedness. His hair was sandy brown and cut short in a rumpled mop on his head. His muscles were large, but not as large as Brisbane’s. He looked like someone who could stumble into The Quarter Pony and receive no odd stares from the regular patrons.

“I have heard the others call you Gil,” Roundtower said, still looking into the sky. “May I call you this, too?”

“I wish you would,” Brisbane said.

Roundtower looked at Brisbane with troubled eyes. “Gil,” he said. “I need guidance of a sort I do not expect you will be able to give, but I also feel compelled to speak of my ordeal. I’m sure either Nog or Roystnof would be happy to listen to me, but neither of them share my faith, and because of that, I do not believe they would truly be able to understand my plight. I will seek out a patriarch when I have the chance, but for now, I feel I must share a portion of my suffering with someone keeps the proper beliefs.”

Brisbane twitched inside at these last three words. He had seen this attitude before and it had always left him idealistically parched. The worship of Grecolus was widely accepted by its followers as the only true religion. When it recognized other beliefs at all, it characterized them as a mythology constructed to answer philosophical puzzles or an underdeveloped culture’s interpretation of the works of the single holy god Grecolus. Brisbane had not had much experience with other religions, but he did not think this viewpoint was as widespread among them. Hadn’t Shortwhiskers said something about dwarven and human gods?

Roundtower must have caught an indication of Brisbane’s discomfort on his face. “Oh,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry if I have made an incorrect assumption. I just thought that since you have lived your whole life in the Valley of Farchrist that you would have been raised in the King’s faith. Have I made an error?”

“No,” Brisbane said, unsure of what he should reveal to this total stranger whom he wanted to be his friend. “No, I have been raised in the worship of Grecolus. My mother and stepfather have seen to that.”

Roundtower smiled knowingly. “It can often be difficult when you are young. Things can seem so uncertain without the benefit of experience.”

Brisbane sat before the warrior in silence for a few moments, not knowing how to respond to his comments. “Please,” he said eventually. “Tell me what you planned to.”

Roundtower nodded. “Yes, thank you,” he said. “As I said, I plan to seek the advice and counseling of a church patriarch when I can, but there are things that I need to work out now. There are some issues that have been forced upon me that cannot wait for that. You see, when this basilisk creature turned me to stone as Roystnof says it did, I thought it had killed me.”

“Yes,” Brisbane said. “I heard you mumble that earlier. I’m not sure I understand the significance.”

Roundtower looked at Brisbane with eyes wide in amazement. “I am killed by a sneak attack by some foul lizard,” he said melodramatically, “an attack so swift that I neither see nor feel the approach of death, and when it is complete I find myself in an afterlife of total emptiness. There is nothing there. No light, no sounds, no scents. It is an infinite plane of void, in which I find myself and nothing else. I do not even have a physical form or, if I do, I cannot perceive it in any fashion. I am merely my thoughts, my consciousness, alone in a universe unto myself.”

Roundtower shuddered again at the memory and Brisbane began to realize how horrible that fate could be. Not just for Roundtower, but for anyone. The isolation, the utter seclusion, with not even the inanimate to occupy your attention. It would drive anyone mad after a while. But it was Roundtower who had been cursed with this glimpse at such a nihilistic afterlife, and it was Roundtower who had such a strong faith in the wisdom and goodliness of Grecolus.

Roundtower cleared his throat. “I cannot describe to you the betrayal I felt. I was actually angry at first. Here I had spent my entire life in merciless devotion to Grecolus, following the doctrine he set down for his servants to live their lives by, and when I did finally pass from this world into the next, I find myself abandoned and alone. Eternal life is one of Grecolus’ promises to his flock, that all who believe in him shall not truly die, but live forever with him in the heavens. If I had died, why did I not see the holy light of Grecolus? Why did I not hear his powerful voice speaking my name? Why did I not feel his guiding hand on my shoulder?”

Roundtower had held his watering eyes up to Brisbane’s face, but now he hung his head and folded his hands between his knees. “That is when I stopped being angry and began to feel my true anguish. The answer to those prideful questions suddenly stared me in the face like all the evil creatures I have killed with my blade. I was not in the heavens because I did not deserve to be there. The holy life I thought I had led had really been a sham.”

Roundtower went suddenly silent and Brisbane felt very uncomfortable during the quiet. He did not know what to say to Roundtower, or even if anything should be said at all. Personally, he still was not sure whether he truly shared the warrior’s faith or not, but he felt like an impostor here. He felt like an unbeliever sitting there listening to Roundtower’s pain.

“Your life has not been a sham,” Brisbane heard himself say, hoping even as he said it that Roundtower would not leap up and ask him just how the hells he knew that.

“No, no,” Roundtower said, wiping moisture from his eyes. “It has, it has.”

The tone of Roundtower’s voice was beginning to make Brisbane’s stomach churn. He began to feel nausea washing over him and he did not know why. Brisbane didn’t really care why, he just did not want to get sick. Brisbane stood up and began to walk aimlessly away.

“Gil?” Roundtower said, his face popping up.

Brisbane stopped at the edge of the campfire’s glow. His back was to Roundtower.

“Please, Gil,” Roundtower said. “I need to finish this.”

Brisbane slowly came back and sat down. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I am not feeling well.” He put a delicate hand on his stomach. “I think it’s something I ate.”

Roundtower swallowed hard. Brisbane realized the warrior was now going to rush through what he had left to say for Brisbane’s sake. That made him feel even worse.

“My faith is strong,” Roundtower said. “I am sure of that. But now I can see all the mistakes I have made in my life. I now realize that I have not been a sinless servant to my Lord.”

“No one is,” Brisbane said automatically.

“Yes, no one is without sin, I know. But the things I have done. I cannot begin to describe what evil I have seen in my travels. I set out on these journeys originally to eradicate that evil from the earth—to do Grecolus’ work—but in the prison in which the basilisk trapped me, I began to see my adventures in a different light. I saw that my intentions had slowly changed, their focus moving from completing a holy mission to obtaining a personal wealth and power. No longer was it my purpose to destroy evil in order to tip the balance of universe to the holy, but I killed the evil creatures I encountered to steal the treasures they hoarded in their caverns.”

Brisbane did not say so, but this transformation Roundtower had undergone reminded him of what Shortwhiskers had said about the dwarven god Abbathor, the Great Master of Greed. If Roundtower thought his change in purpose had been brought about somehow under the influence of Damaleous—who Brisbane was trying to equate in his own mind with Abbathor—he might have found yet another similarity between the human and dwarven mythologies.

Roundtower paused to look into the sky at the white moon Grecolum, still full to visual observation. “I hate to admit it,” he said quietly, “especially to you, Gil, but I can only say that my associations have taken me away from Grecolus and brought me slowly under the influence of the Evil One.”

It was at once what Brisbane had wanted and what he had not wanted to hear the warrior say. Linking his personal shortcomings to Damaleous was one thing, but to his associations?

“What do you mean by that?” Brisbane asked.

Roundtower looked back into Brisbane’s tense face. “I am sorry,” he said with deep sincerity. “I can tell you care for him a great deal, and over the years I too have come to consider him my friend. But I must face facts. He is a wizard. He does work magic. Even if he does not recognize it, Roystnof can only be considered a servant of Damaleous.”

Brisbane no longer felt sick to his stomach. He was quite suddenly burning with rage. He stood up and stammered over some syllables, trying to find the right and most appropriate thing to say. How can you say that after he saved you from your stone prison came to mind, but that was off target. He considered flatly denying the accusation, claiming that Roystnof was not a servant of Damaleous, but he knew that argument would be fruitless with Roundtower. He almost allowed himself to call Roundtower a horrible name, but even that, Brisbane decided, would not be direct enough. There came a moment when Brisbane didn’t think he would be able to say anything at all, and it was then that the perfect words came into his mind.

He flavored them with as much sarcasm as he could muster. “Are you trying to tell me that you have decided to try and kill Roystnof, too?”

Roundtower stood up. “Gil, please. Sit down. I could no more kill Roystnof than kill myself. Let me finish.”

Grudgingly, Brisbane sat.

Roundtower lowered himself onto the rock and continued in a low voice. “Being dead, or rather turned to stone, showed me one other thing. It showed me that my own judgment could not be relied upon when choosing what evil to combat and why. When I first took up my blade, it all seemed so clear cut. Good and evil. Black and white. But when I look back upon things, I see that life is not that simple. There is a lot of gray in my black and white world, and a lot of things that defy definition as either good or evil.”

Brisbane’s temper was cooling as the warrior spoke. He was beginning to feel ashamed that he had reacted so uproariously.

“This is in part the reason I have finally decided to try and become a Knight a Farchrist. I have a strong arm in combat, and I have always wanted to use this skill against the enemies of Grecolus. But for too long now I have been going at it alone—choosing my own evils to destroy. I shudder to think of the numbers of errors I may have made in judgment. But the Knights are a holy order, and it is said that the King can talk to Grecolus himself. There, I would receive the guidance I need to really put my sword to the use of good. There, I would never be unsure in my conquest of evil.”

Brisbane could understand this reasoning, but he did not see how one man’s judgment would be better than another’s. Not in matters as difficult to define as to what is good and what is evil. “And what is the other part of the reason you seek the knighthood?”

Roundtower’s eyes grew dark. “Because I want to make certain that when I really do die, I will stand with my creator in the afterlife.”

Brisbane pursed his lips and thought again of how little faith he had in the religious instruction he had been given. He knew it would be easy to accept what he had been taught, easy to follow the words of Grecolus, easy to live life according to his scriptures. Easy, peaceful, and comforting, yes. But was it right? That’s what kept Brisbane guessing. Was it right?

“I hope you do,” Brisbane said.

Roundtower smiled and stood. Brisbane felt he was expected to stand as well, so he did. The warrior extended a hand and Brisbane shook it.

“Thank you, Gil,” Roundtower said. “Thank you for your attention and your kind ear. There is more to tell, but I already feel purged enough to continue with an untroubled mind. Go now and sleep well. I will stand watch. If I tire, I will wake our friend Nog to relieve me.”

“I’m sure he will appreciate that,” Brisbane said with only a touch of sarcasm.

Roundtower laughed. “Yes. I’m sure he will.”

There was no rain to warrant crowding the tent with a third body, so Brisbane spread out his bedroll on the grassy earth, took off his boots, and laid down on his back. He folded his hands behind his head and began to think of all the things Roundtower had said as he stared at the stars and waited for sleep to overtake him.

I must share a portion of my suffering with someone keeps the proper beliefs.

The proper beliefs. Didn’t all religions consider their beliefs to be the proper beliefs? They must. Only a fool would worship a god he knew to be false. But if all faiths considered only themselves to be the true one, how could the actual true religion make itself known? No religion, as far as Brisbane knew, had concrete evidence of its veracity. If one had, wouldn’t everyone follow that one? Why could the dwarves envision more than one god and humans could not?

I thought I had died.

Roundtower certainly found himself unprepared to face death and Brisbane wondered how he would fare. If there was no afterlife, there was nothing to prepare for. You live and you die. If he died slowly, Brisbane thought he might feel regret for things he had or had not done in his life, but a quick death would leave no time for such worries. He would blink out of existence and that would be it. If there was an afterlife, however, and it was as he had been taught it was, Brisbane felt he would be unprepared for his demise. He may shuffle himself back and forth between belief and disbelief, but he knew that Grecolus would easily and justifiably label him an unbeliever and that he would spend eternity in any one of the Nine Hells. That seemed unfair to Brisbane, that he should be punished for not believing things that could not be proven. It was his nature not to believe in things blindly, and that nature had been created as a part of him. But if Grecolus did exist with his infinite powers, would it not be wise to do his bidding regardless of your own personal beliefs? And if there was an afterlife, but it was unlike anything Brisbane had been taught, how could he possibly prepare for it, not knowing what it was? He may actually be unconsciously prepared for it now, and any conscious attempt to prepare for it may make him unprepared.

Roystnof can only be considered a servant of Damaleous.

Brisbane still fumed at the accusation. He knew little of the worship of the Evil One, but he did not see how Roystnof could be practicing it. Brisbane had known him for six years and they had been close from the start. Throughout the time he had secretly studied magic under Roystnof’s tutelage, the wizard had never mentioned Damaleous as the source of his power. He had said the power came from within the magic-user. It was an inherent force present in everyone, larger in a few and barely detectable in most. When Brisbane cast his first cantrip at the age of thirteen, he did so without selling his soul, signing a contract in blood, summoning a demon, or fornicating with one. He had just reached deep inside himself, concentrated on what he wanted the cantrip to do, and tapped into an unrealized power to make the study door unlock by itself. Either Roystnof practiced devil worship in secret and had sold Brisbane away to evil forces without his knowledge—an idea Brisbane found ludicrous—or his magic was not derived from the Evil One.

Brisbane yawned, starting to get sleepy.

Or maybe, the power inside himself that Brisbane could tap into actually was Damaleous, living inside Brisbane’s own body.

There is a lot of gray in my black and white world.

Black and white. That was what Otis had taught Brisbane the world was like. Good and evil. A man either gave his heart to Grecolus or he did not. Those who did were christened the Good, and those who did not were labeled the Evil. But wasn’t it only the Good who did this labeling? What did the Evil think of the label given to them by the Good? What did the Evil call themselves and what did they call the Good? What does a bat call the daytime? Roundtower said there was a lot of gray in this supposedly black and white world, many things that avoided the labels of both the Good and the Evil, and Roundtower had certainly seen more of the world than Brisbane’s stepfather. Besides, Brisbane already knew about the existence of the Gray. He was about as Gray as one could get.

It is said that the King can talk to Grecolus himself.

Conversations with a god? What would one say? How could one assume a friendly tone when speaking with an Almighty? The maker of heavens and earth? Brisbane could only imagine it as the most humbling experience. Wouldn’t even the most saintly cleric feel like a sinful wretch under such a commanding stare? What if one said something to displease the god? The worrying alone could drive one insane.

Brisbane was now beginning to drift off into slumber. His thoughts strayed to dream-like sensations of reality. He imagined his mother was still alive, as he often did, her face clean and smooth, without a trace of age, decay, or death. He remembered the time Roystnof gave him the silver pentacle pendant, which now lay still in the crevice of his throat. He imagined rushing home to show his mother and Otis the gift, but instead of Otis, in the wandering of his mind he replaced his stepfather with his real father, the man he had never known. The senior Brisbane hugged his child closely and told him to keep his pendant safe and to treasure it.

Just before he fell asleep on that night spent outside the strange oasis in the Windcrest Hills, Brisbane thought automatically of Allison Stargazer, and without the restriction of reflection he imagined the warmth of her body pressing against his.