Friday, March 25, 2011

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Scroll down and see what I wrote about this one after listening to it as an audiobook. It's a good summary of my thoughts after flipping through the actual pages.

But there is one additional thing that jumped out at me reading it that I didn't pick up on listening to it. In the beginning, when the lead hominid, Moon-Watcher, who has been changed by the monolith, kills One-Ear with the head of the leopard impaled on a branch like a club, Clarke writes:

For a few seconds Moon-Watcher stood uncertainly above his new victim, trying to grasp the strange and wonderful fact that the dead leopard could kill again. Now he was master of the world, and he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

And at the very end, when David Bowman returns to earth as the star-child, crossing both space and time with the powers given to him by the same aliens that built Moon-Watcher's monolith, and destroys the orbiting nuclear missiles of earth's protective sheild with his very thoughts, Clarke writes:

Then he waited, marshaling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

It's a good way to bring the novel full circle, to connect the evolutionary leap taken by homo sapiens with the same leap just taken by the star-child, to make us think of his power over humans in the same way we think of our power over the animal kingdom. But the phrase "he would think of something" sends yet another message--that the power, once acquired, is entirely at the disposal of the bearer. The aliens of Clarke's novel may have helped humans take these two quantum leaps, but what humans decide to do with that opportunity is their's and their's alone. To extend into metaphor, there is an intelligent designer, but he only sets us in motion. He does not control our destiny.

FROM MARCH 28, 2005:

The latest audiobook and a decent one, but one whose enjoyment was really enhanced by seeing the movie first. I’m not sure I would have liked it as much if I had read the book first, because I think this might be one of those rare instances where the movie is actually better than the book. The book has a little more explanation in it that helps connect some of the dots that seem unconnected in the movie, but it doesn’t really explain it all, which in the end leaves me preferring the more mystical approach offered by the movie.

I know from the movie, for example, that the monolith helps some hominids on the evolutionary path towards humanity, and that it effects the same kind of change a few million years later, moving humans onto an equally dramatic evolutionary plateau. In the book, more explanation is offered, including a brief profile of the beings that created the monoliths and their reasons for tampering with the development of certain species.

That’s fun to listen to and speculate about, but I think I like the movie version better, in which all those details are left out and we’re left wondering how and why the monoliths are doing what they do.
It may be my own personal bias, but the black monoliths of the movie are a lot more like Melville’s white whale, symbols of that unknowable and unconquerable force that exists apart from humanity and operates according to principles we can’t understand. Except here, the whale is not ignoring the tempest of our little lives; here the whale is actually controlling our destiny. Not just Ahab’s, but all of ours. And we are equally helpless to understand or influence it. The movie works very powerfully on that level and the book does not.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sink the Bismarck! by C. S. Forester

I read about the Bismarck—a famous German battleship from World War II—and the British campaign to sink it in one book or another. I remember the author, whoever it was, describing it as one of the most daring and thrilling episodes of the Second World War, so I thought I would see if anyone had written a book about it. The search results included just one tome—Sink the Bismarck! by C. S. Forester.

The exclamation point should have cautioned me. Here’s Forester’s opening line:

This is a story of the most desperate chances, of the loftiest patriotism and of the highest professional skills, of a gamble for the dominion of the world in which human lives were the stakes on the green gaming table of the ocean.

And it goes downhill from there. I think this book might have appealed to members of the Winston Churchill Admiration Society when it came out in 1959, but it suffers painfully under a modern reading. The patriotism is, I fear, more jingoistic than lofty, and the desperate chances and professional skills Forester likes to portray in his fiction are largely supplanted by the indiscriminate and bone-crushing technology of modern warfare.

Far down below decks in the Bismarck, walled in by armor plate, a group of officers and men sat at tables and switchboards. Despite the vile weather outside, despite the wind and the waves, it was almost silent in here; in addition to the quiet orders and announcements of the radar fire-control team there could only be heard the low purring of the costly instruments they handled. Centered in the room was the yellow-green eye of the radar, echoing the impressions received by the aerial at the masthead a hundred feet above; the room was half dark to enable the screen to be seen clearly. And in accordance with what that screen showed, dials were turned and pointers were set and reports were spoken into telephones; save for the uniforms, it might have been a gathering of medieval wizards performing some secret rite—but it was not the feeble magic of trying to cause an enemy to waste away by sticking pins into his waxen image or of attempting to summon up fiends from the underworld. These incantations let loose a thousand foot tons of energy from the Bismarck’s guns and hurled instant death across ten miles of raging sea.

The strategy employed to trap the Bismarck is not gripping—lots of scenes of admirals and captains in control rooms with fingers pointing to sea charts saying “here,” the Bismarck is “here”—the kind of thing, I suppose, that really happened, but which pales in comparison to any typical Tom Clancy novel.

It also helps tremendously if you have a rooting interest in the fight, especially the one you’re supposed to have, the one in favor of the British and against the Germans. The Germans portrayed in the novel are, in fact, more or less monolithic in their evil devotion to their Reich and their Fuhrer—something, I think, the real Germans would have called patriotism—but clearly not the kind of patriotism we’re supposed to respect. They, of course, get what’s coming to them, and the final destruction of the Bismarck is almost orgiastic in its devastation.

The smoke was pouring from the battered, almost shapeless hull of the Bismarck, stripped of her upper works, mast, funnels, bridge and all. Yet under the smoke, plainly in the dull gray light, he could see a forest—a small grove, rather—of tall red flames roaring upward from within the hull. But it was not the smoke nor the flames that held the eye, strangely enough, but the ceaseless dance of tall jets of water all about her. Two battleships were flinging shells at her both from their main and from their secondary armaments; and from the cruisers twenty eight-inch guns were joining in. There was never a moment when she was not ringed in by the splashes of near-misses, but when the leader forced his eye to ignore the distraction of this wild water dance he saw something else: from bow to stern along the tortured hull he could see a continual coming and going of shellbursts, volcanoes of flame and smoke. From that low height, as the Swordfish closed in, he could see everything. He could see the two fore-turrets useless, one of them with the roof blown clean off and the guns pointing over side at extreme elevation, the other with the guns fore and aft drooping at extreme depression. Yet the aftermost turret was still in action; even as he watched, he saw one of the guns in it fling out a jet of smoke towards the shadowy form of the King George V; down there in the steel turret, nestling among the flames, some heroes were still contriving to load and train and fire. And he saw something else at the last moment of his approach. There were a few tiny, foreshortened figures visible here and there, scrambling over the wreckage, incredibly alive amid the flames and the explosions, leaping down from the fiery hull into the boiling sea.

My favorite bit there is line about the heroes. Yes, I guess it’s okay to call the Germans heroes in death. We certainly aren’t allowed to call them heroes in life.

It ends predictably, with an appeal for humanity and the equality of man.

“Bismarck sunk,” said the young officer in the War Room. “Bismarck sunk.”

Those words of the young officer were spoken in a hushed voice, and yet their echoes were heard all over the world. In a hundred countries radio announcers hastened to repeat those words to their audiences. In a hundred languages, newspaper headlines proclaimed , Bismarck sunk to a thousand million readers. Frivolous women head those words unhearing; unlettered peasants heard them uncomprehending, even though the destinies of all of them were changed in that moment. Stock exchange speculators revised their plans. Prime ministers and chiefs of state took grim note of those words. The admirals of a score of navies prepared to compose memoranda advising their governments regarding the political and technical conclusions to be drawn from them. And there were wives and mothers and children who heard those words as well, just as Nobby’s mother had heard about the loss of the Hood.

The Hood is an English ship sunk by the Bismarck, and Nobby one of the English sailors who died as a result. The juxtaposition of two deaths and two mothers is false pathos as its finest, coming as late as it does in the story. Too bad the author didn’t think of those mothers sooner.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

I picked this one up on a lark at one of the library’s used book sales. Buck a book the first day. Buck a box of books the second day. Phenomenally popular in some circles, phenomenally panned in others, I thought I’d give it a read and see what sense I could make of it.

In case you don’t know, Left Behind is the first in a sixteen-book series LaHaye and Jenkins wrote—all of them novels—and all of them based on the end time mythology believed by some Evangelical Christians. The Rapture, The Tribulation, the Mark of the Beast—all of that stuff. Left Behind deals solely with the Rapture itself—millions of people all over the world disappearing in the blink of an eye (evidently swept off the Heaven by Jesus)—and the lives of those left behind who have to make sense of the loss. And I want to deal with the novel on three different levels.

First, there’s the writing.

It’s not awful. Given the subject matter and some reviews I’ve heard of it, I expected it to be absolute dreck, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it on par with other popular pulp fiction I’ve read. The prose is not rich, it doesn’t thrill you with its imagery or metaphor, but it doesn’t distract you with its clumsiness and it keeps the story moving forward.

Next, there’s the plot.

There are 468 pages in the edition I have. And until page 458, I was wrestling with the idea that I might go ahead and at least read the next volume, if not all sixteen of them. How did they manage to lose me just ten pages shy of the end? Let me try to explain.

The story is mostly about a handful of people—an airline pilot, his daughter, a journalist, an assistant pastor—who all got left behind because their faith was lacking in some way, and about how they find their ways back to Christ as they realize that world events are starting to follow the prophecies they see in Revelation. The rise of the Antichrist is a big part of that, and in this novel the Antichrist is:

“Nicolae Carpathia.”

“Carpathia like the—?”

“Yes, like the Carpathian Mountains. A melodic name, you must admit. I found him most charming and humble. Not unlike myself!” Again he had laughed.

“I’ve not heard of him.”

“You will! You will.”

Buck [the journalist] had tried to lead the old man. “Because he’s…”

“Impressive, that’s all I can say.”

“And he’s some sort of low-level diplomat at this point?”

“He’s a member of the lower house of Romanian government.”

“In the senate?”

“No, the senate is the upper house.”

“Of course.”

“Don’t feel bad that you don’t know, even though you are an international journalist. This is something only Romanians and amateur political scientists like me know. That is something I like to study.”

“In your spare time.”

“Precisely. But even I had not known of this man. I mean, I knew someone in the House of Deputies—that’s what they call the lower house in Romania—was a peacemaker and leading a movement toward disarmament. But I did not know his name. I believe his goal is global disarmament, which we Israelis have come to distrust.”


This is our first glimpse of the man who would later be revealed as the Antichrist and, given the novel’s subject matter, the alarm bells should already be going off. The identity of the Antichrist is never really a mystery to the reader, although the characters struggle somewhat to puzzle it out. But what really stands out to me is how much I’m initially on board with Carpathia. Global disarmament. World peace. Sounds good to me. And it seems like he might have a better shot at that with all the evangelicals whisked off to heaven.

You see, as I worked my way through the novel and Carpathia moved farther and farther along the path outlined for the Antichrist in Revelation, I kept trying to harmonize his actions and those of the people around him with reality as I understood it. That, to me, would have been a much more interesting novel—a story in which the events of Biblical Armageddon took place, but in a way that was logical and consistent with the way humans actually conduct themselves on planet Earth. I thought that would have been really clever, and I kept trying to read this novel that way. Picture a series of events that secularists would interpret as natural and beneficial and that evangelicals would interpret as sinister and evil. The authors could have kept their readers guessing as to what was really going on until the very end. But as I finally deciphered ten pages away from the ending, LaHaye and Jenkins couldn’t write that novel. No one could. Because the events of Biblical Armageddon depend entirely on the suspension of reality. They couldn’t happen any other way. And if you aren’t willing to abandon reality, then nothing that happens is this novel will strike you as plausible.

For example, at a press conference, Carpathia is asked what he thinks is behind all the disappearances mainstream society has not yet interpreted as the Rapture. He refers to a hypothesis of one of his scientist friends:

“Dr. Rosenzweig believes that some confluence of electromagnetism in the atmosphere, combined with as yet unknown or unexplained atomic ionization from the nuclear power and weaponry throughout the world, could have been ignited or triggered—perhaps by a natural cause like lightning, or even by an intelligent life-from that discovered this possibility before we did—and caused this instant action throughout the world.”

Um, excuse me? Come again? The fictional press corps is evidently ready to swallow that mumbo jumbo, but one intrepid reporter asks why, if that is so, the disappearances affected some people and not others?

“At this point they are postulating that certain people’s levels of electricity made them more likely to be affected. That would account for all the children and babies and even fetal material that vanished. Their electromagnetism was not developed to the point where it could resist whatever happened.”

If this was the real world, who would take any of that seriously? Especially a world where all the fundamentalist Christians are gone. The average understanding of real science across the world would have jumped several points. A person’s level of electricity? What does that even mean?

And there’s more stuff like that that this Antichrist does, things that don’t make any plausible sense in the real world, and can only be rationalized if you believe they need to happen because the Bible says they must. Things like a pact between United Nations members to guarantee Israel’s borders, an agreement by all nations to give their nuclear weapons to the U.N., moving the U.N. headquarters to Babylon, and the establishment of one currency, religion and language for the entire world. Think about the real political situation in the world today. These things are not just implausible, they are ludicrous. But LaHaye and Jenkins must make them happen because they are writing a novel about the prophesized end times. And how do they do that? How do they make that all work?

Magic.

That’s why it took me so long to figure it out. I kept thinking there would a rational explanation for things, that I was reading a psychological thriller—like The Exorcist—where there are two interpretations of events—one embraced by the believers and one by the non-believers, and the authors would heighten the tension by walking the razor-thin wire between the two interpretations, never letting on to the reader which interpretation was the right one. Was Carpathia the Antichrist trying to take over and enslave the world? Or was he the leader of a broad secular movement, working against religious interpretations of reality and towards co-existence and peace among all peoples?

“You think Carpathia is this Antichrist?”

“I don’t see how I could come to any other conclusion.”

“But I really believed in the guy.”

“Why not? Most of us did. Self-effacing, interested in the welfare of the people, humble, not looking for power or leadership. But the Antichrist is a deceiver. And he had the power to control men’s minds. He can make people see lies as truth.”


That last bit LaHaye and Jenkins mean literally. What finally pushes me over the edge is the scene where Carpathia murders someone in front of a room full of people, and then hypnotizes them all into believing some madman had rushed into the room and shot the victim. There’s no going back after that. Carpathia has literal magic at his command. It’s what he needs to make the Bible story actually happen, but it’s also the point where I lose all interest.

And finally, there’s the worldview.

It’s pretty black and white.

As someone observes shortly after the Rapture occurs:

Everyone we know who’s gone is either a child or a very nice person.

Of course they are. We all know that only true Christians are good people. All those secularists and Jews and Muslims—they’re all working for Satan. The authors really write about non-believers like all they know about them are the stereotypes. Here one of the main characters, Rayford Steele (the airline pilot) thinking about his wife’s belief and his lack of belief (the bold type is emphasis I have added):

Irene had always talked of a loving God, but even God’s love and mercy had to have limits. Had everyone who denied the truth pushed God to his limit? Was there no more mercy, no second chance? Maybe there wasn’t, and if that was so, that was so.

But if there were options, if there was still a way to find the truth and believe or accept or whatever it was Irene said one was supposed to do, Rayford was going to find it. Would it mean admitting that he didn’t know everything? That he had relied on himself and that now he felt stupid and weak and worthless? He could admit that. After a lifetime of achieving, of excelling, of being better than most and the best in most circles, he had been as humbled as was possible in one stroke.


As if non-believers are consciously denying some truth that is readily apparent to them. As if they believe they know everything. The atheist clich├ęs are thick as thieves in this novel, and there isn’t a single character who has a prayer to survive with their non-belief intact with LaHaye and Jenkins calling the shots. Rayford’s dialogue with Bruce Barnes (the assistant pastor) and his inner turmoil as he struggles with his own lack of belief is a treasure trove of these tropes.

I believe God’s purpose in this is to allow those who remain to take stock of themselves and leave their frantic search for pleasure and self-fulfillment, and turn to the Bible for truth and to Christ for salvation.

Frantic? Most people who are serious about searching for pleasure and self-fulfillment are pretty disciplined about it. There’s no other way to find it.

It doesn’t make any difference, at this point, why you’re still on earth. You may have been too selfish or prideful or busy, or simply you didn’t take the time to examine the claims of Christ for yourself.

Or perhaps you were unconvinced by the utter lack of evidence?

He needed forgiveness of sin and the assurance that one day he would join his wife and son in heaven.

What sin does he need to be forgiven of? Not thinking the right magical thoughts?

He confessed his pride. Pride in his intelligence. Pride in his looks. Pride in his abilities. He confessed his lusts, how he had neglected his wife, how he had sought his own pleasure. How he had worshipped money and things.

Oh, the horror. The horror!

Indeed, much later in the novel when every major character seemed to be turning into a born again Christian, I scribbled in the margin:

This story needs an atheist who, resigned to acknowledge that the God of the Bible is real, still wants nothing to do with the S.O.B.

At first I thought Rayford’s daughter Chloe was going to be that character. Here she is arguing with her father shortly after the “disappearances,” when those “left behind” are still trying to make sense of them. Rayford and Chloe were both part-time Christians before the Rapture, and now Rayford is coming to understand what has really happened.

“Chloe, I think the Christians are gone.”

“So I’m not a Christian either?”

“You’re my daughter and the only other member of my family still left; I love you more than anything on earth. But if the Christians are gone and everyone else is left, I don’t think anyone is a Christian.”

“Some kind of a super Christian, you mean.”

“Yeah, a true Christian. Apparently those who were taken were recognized by God as truly his. How else can I say it?”

“Daddy, what does this make God? Some sick, sadistic dictator?”

“Careful, honey. You think I’m wrong, but what if I’m right?”

“Then God is spiteful, hateful, mean. Who want to go to heaven with a God like that?”

“If that’s where your mom and Raymie are, that’s where I want to be.”

“I want to be with them, too, Daddy! But tell me how this fits with a loving, merciful God. When I went to church, I got tired of hearing how loving God is. He never answered my prayers and I never felt like he knew me or cared about me. Now you’re saying I was right. He didn’t. I didn’t qualify, so I got left behind?”


Chloe’s conundrum was also mine for a while. I wanted the authors to explain to me what the critical difference was—why some people who thought they were Christians were raptured and why others who thought the same thing weren’t. The closest they come to providing an answer is in that earlier dialogue between Rayford and Bruce. In it, Bruce explains that he thought he was covered because he believed and found solace in the Bible verses that said if he confessed his sins and was faithful God would forgive him and cleanse him. Even though:

I knew other verses said you had to believe and receive, to trust and abide, but to me that was sort of theological mumbo jumbo.

And later, he stresses:

But we are to receive his gift, abide in Christ, and allow him to live through us.

These are clearly the key ideas, the description of the difference that saved some and caused the others to be left behind. Believe and receive his gift. Abide in Christ. Allow him to live through you. Sounds good. But I don’t have any idea what they really mean. The rest of Bruce’s dialogue provides some clues, but they are all so childish, so parochial, that it’s hard to take them seriously. With the benefit of hindsight, Bruce laments, he knows that he was left behind because he did such abominations as not tithing to the church, not sharing his faith with others, seeing movies when he was supposed to be witnessing, reading things he was not supposed to read, and looking at magazines that fed his lusts. Well yeah, Bruce, doing shit like that, I can see why God left your sorry ass behind.

And being left behind is evidently a very bad thing in this narrative world that LaHaye and Jenkins have created. As Bruce laments at the end of this dialogue:

There is no doubt in my mind that we have witnessed the Rapture. My biggest fear, once I realized the truth, was that there was no more hope for me. I had missed it, I had been a phony, I had set up my own brand of Christianity that may have made for a life of freedom but had cost me my soul. I had heard people say that when the church was raptured, God’s Spirit would be gone from the earth. The logic was that when Jesus went to heaven after his resurrection, the Holy Spirit that God gave to the church was embodied in believers. So that when they were taken, the Spirit would be gone, and there would be no more hope for anyone left.

This, of course, is totally consistent with the evangelical worldview. The only good people on the planet are the true Christians, so when they are gone, the world will inexorably slip into darkness and chaos.

The news was full of crime, looting, people taking advantage of the chaos. People were being shot, maimed, raped, killed. The roadways were more dangerous than ever. Emergency units were understaffed, fewer air- and ground-traffic controllers manned the airports, fewer qualified pilots and crews flew the planes.

People checked the graves of loved ones to see if their corpses had disappeared, and unscrupulous types pretended to do the same while looking for valuables that might have been buried with the wealthy. It had become an ugly world overnight, and Rayford was worried about his and Chloe’s safety.


And this, for me, is ultimately the most unbelievable part of the entire story. If only the truest of true believers had been swept off to heaven, then there would still be BILLIONS of people left on earth who were fundamentally good people, who would want to see the world move on the way it always had. I certainly would. Contrary to the authors’ opinion of the ungodly, most of them aren’t looking for someone else to save them. They are working hard, day in and day out, to save the world from itself. Maybe, since the world population would be slightly more secular than before, they would actually find ways to make things a little better. Chaos would certainly reign for a day or two after the Rapture incident, but cooler heads would prevail.

But not in this novel. There can be no positive atheists in this morality play. For God is real and the atheists are just plain wrong.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chapter Eight

from STONE TO FLESH
FARCHRIST TALES - BOOK ONE

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

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

After Gildegarde Brisbane had become a Knight of Farchrist, it was his duty to scour the land of evil and ensure the safety of the King and his subjects. This he did without quarter, defeating threat after villainous threat with his blade and with his wits. When Gregorovich Farchrist II decided to send a small party to Dragon’s Peak to dispatch the evil Dalanmire from his place on this earth, it included only the King’s own son, Gregorovich III, a dwarven ambassador to function as their guide across the Crimson Mountains and Desert of Despair, a high priestess of the Royal Temple of Grecolus to ensure a moral commitment to the quest, and Sir Gildegarde Brisbane. When asked if he feared for his life in such an endeavor, Brisbane answered by saying that in his experience, the bravest deeds often sprang directly out of fear.

+   +   +

They stood before the wall of the oasis in a small group. There had been little discussion that morning. All had seemed occupied with their own thoughts. They all appeared ready for battle. Roundtower and Shortwhiskers wore their chainmail and carried shields. Brisbane wore his studded leather jerkin, as was becoming usual, and held the short sword that had been given to him before him like a torch to light his way. Roystnof wore no armor, but he had been studying his spell book since sunrise.

Once the group had crossed the wall and entered the garden itself, what little conversation there had been ceased completely, and they made their way through the trees and shrubs in silent determination. Shortwhiskers took the lead because he had seen in which direction the small stone structure sat from his perch the day before. Roystnof followed the dwarf and, in single file behind them, came Brisbane and finally Roundtower.

As soon as Brisbane’s feet touched the soft earth inside the wall he began to worry about coming across the basilisk. But now, added to his fears was the knowledge of what the basilisk could really do to him, the prison he could be shut in. His rational mind told him that even if he was turned to stone, Roystnof could turn him back just as quickly. But his fear told him that Roystnof would be unable to work the magic if something got to the wizard first. More than ever, Brisbane told himself, he would allow no harm to come to his magician friend. He did not want to spend eternity alone with his thoughts.

They trudged through the undergrowth as quietly as possible and Shortwhiskers led them with deliberate directness to their goal. They were going deeper into the center of the garden, and the trees became thicker and thicker as they went. Eventually, the canopy of leaves blocked out the sunlight altogether, and Brisbane found himself walking through a small forest.

Brisbane’s nerves were tense and they twinged at every snapped twig and rustle of leaves. He kept a firm grip on the short sword and kept his eyes open and roving. He saw no other life-like stone statues along the route and spotted many small furry woodland animals. He took both of these as signs that these woods were not patrolled by a platoon of basilisks, and that the one Roundtower had seen was a solitary beast.

Then, suddenly, Brisbane could see the glow of sunlight far ahead at the end of the makeshift path they were following. As they approached the light it became obvious that the trees were going to break into a large clearing. Brisbane could see over the heads of Roystnof and the dwarf, and his glances showed him that the small stone building which they sought stood in the center of that clearing.

Shortwhiskers reached the clearing and stepped aside to let the rest of the party in before advancing. Roystnof walked out into the sunshine followed closely by Brisbane and Roundtower. The four stood on the rim of a circular clearing about one hundred yards in diameter. In the center stood a twenty foot cube of stone with a black doorway facing the group. This was the structure they had come to see but now, none of their eight eyes were fixed upon it. They all looked at the human figure of stone that stood immobile in front of the structure.

Shortwhiskers spoke. “I think we have found the den of your basilisk-creature, Roystnof.”

“I’m not so sure,” Roystnof said. “That’s no natural formation of rock. Somebody built it.”

Shortwhiskers nodded. “Somebody that died long ago and when the basilisk found it empty, it moved right in.”

“The basilisk is not here.”

The voice belonged to Roundtower. The other three stared at the warrior.

“How do you know?” Shortwhiskers asked.

Roundtower kept his gaze in the distance and shook his head. “I’m not sure. But I can feel it. There is something in there, something evil, but it is not the basilisk.”

Brisbane did not understand how Roundtower could know this, but his voice carried the conviction of truth. Shortwhiskers was shaking his head, as if he thought the warrior was crazy, but Roystnof seemed very interested in whatever it was that Roundtower was sensing.

“Can you feel anything else, Ignatius?” the wizard asked.

“Roundtower slowly nodded, still looking off into the distance. When he spoke, it was as if he was talking in his sleep. “Yes. It is wrong. The evil is wrong. Not just in the way that all evil is wrong, but wrong because it is in this place. I feel this to be a place of such goodness that the evil festering here is nothing but the highest sacrilege.”

Brisbane stared at Roundtower’s chiseled face, remembering what the warrior had said the night before about the mistakes he feared he had made in the purging of evil.

Roundtower drew his sword and Brisbane saw the blade out of its scabbard for the first time. It was long, slim, and double-edged. The metal of the blade was of a type Brisbane had never seen. It had a sickly greenish tinge to it and appeared to glow a bit brighter than the strong sunlight could account for. The pommel was long as well, meant for two hands, but the weapon was quite obviously light enough to be wielded effectively with one. Set into the circular base of the pommel was one large emerald.

Brisbane felt an odd sensation wash over him as he gawked unconsciously at Roundtower’s blade. The weapon was strangely compelling to him, as if it bore some great significance in his life. Brisbane found himself wanting that sword, and a little voice inside his head told him that soon he would have it.

Roundtower suddenly stepped forward and began walking towards the structure. Brisbane looked at Roystnof and the dwarf, their faces saying that they could do nothing but follow the warrior. So, the small group approached the center of the clearing with Roundtower two or three paces ahead of the others. The darkness of the opening in the building remained an obscure void, and no matter how hard they tried to peer into its depths, it kept its secrets hidden from them.

Brisbane’s eyes scanned the circle of trees surrounding the clearing. He looked for any signs of movement, something that would reveal the monsters certain to be lurking in the shadows. But he saw nothing of any danger. He looked back at the building and was surprised to see how much distance they had closed during his glances about. The stone figure stood not ten yards away and the small building not twenty beyond that.

They gathered around the statue and began to circle around it like some totemistic children’s game. The statue had obviously been there for a long time. It was of a young man, older than Brisbane but younger than Roystnof, and its stone surface was worn and weatherbeaten. The man was dressed simply in a knee-length tunic and trousers. His hair was long and loose, and fell about his hollow face in stone clumps. He wore a backpack. He was devoid of any color as Roundtower had been, but his granite had a sickly gray-white stain in its pores, and it reeked of dirty rainwater.

“Another victim of the basilisk,” Roystnof said simply.

“How long do you think he has been here?” Brisbane asked, looking at the erosion running down the statue’s sunken cheeks.

Roystnof pondered. “Years, I would say. Perhaps more than ten. Perhaps even twenty. There is really no way to tell.”

Brisbane saw Roundtower shudder. He could only guess what the warrior was thinking after his weeks in solitary.

“Can you help him?” Roundtower asked the wizard?

“I can transform his back,” Roystnof said, “if that’s what you mean. But I don’t know if that would be wise now.”

“Why not?” Roundtower asked?

Roystnof pursed his lips. “Ignatius.” His voice was soft. “I know you may not want to recall it, but you know how your…well, how your sanity had deteriorated after only two weeks as stone. This one has been imprisoned for perhaps decades.”

The wizard’s words obviously had their effect on Roundtower. The warrior held his head low and had his eyes shut. Brisbane began to worry that maybe Roystnof had spoken too plainly when Roundtower brought his head up and spoke with clear eyes.

“The ordeal may well have driven him insane, but as long as he stays in this state, he will continue to suffer. I say you release him.”

Brisbane was a bit shocked at the tone of Roundtower’s voice. It seemed as if he was ordering Roystnof around. He looked at the mage with lines of concern in his forehead.

Roystnof offered a smile to Brisbane. “In our travels,” he explained, “my magical services have always been up to a vote of the party in circumstances such as this. Ignatius was only letting me know his feelings in this matter. Gil, I feel that you now have as much say as any one of us. What is your vote?”

Brisbane felt better about Roundtower’s reaction after this explanation. He still felt the warrior had been issuing an order, but he could reasonably attribute the tone of voice to Roundtower’s current state of mind. Brisbane himself did not wish to see the innocent suffer. But he also felt important now in spite of himself. Roystnof had more or less officially named him a member of their little group. He was tired of feeling like an outsider.

“I vote you free him,” Brisbane said with as much dignity as he could muster.

Roystnof turned to the dwarf. “And you, Nog?”

Shortwhiskers, who had been unusually quiet during the conversation, looked up at the wizard through his thick eyebrows. Brisbane saw an odd and almost angry look in the dwarf’s eyes, and his jaw was set in a way Brisbane had not seen before. It gave him a queer feeling that all was not well and he irrationally found himself wondering why Shortwhiskers’ whiskers were short.

Shortwhiskers spat. “I don’t like the smell of his stone. Let him rot.”

Brisbane was startled at the dwarf’s gruffness and Roundtower ventured a quizzical look at his smaller friend, but Roystnof ignored the tone of his response and simply took the vote as a no.

“Myself,” Roystnof said, “I vote to transform this man back to flesh, so the matter his settled. But I think we should wait until after we have explored the structure. Agreed?”

Brisbane and Roundtower agreed that perhaps that was best but Shortwhiskers only grumbled that he thought it was a bad idea whenever they decided to do it. The party turned their attention upon the stone structure.

It was a twenty foot cube of stone constructed of four great slabs of rock set upright and a fifth placed heavily atop their edges as a roof. The wall facing the approaching party bore an opening, five feet wide and ten feet high, and around this portal were strange glyphs and runes, carved into the rock. Standing this close to the entrance, Brisbane could see a few feet of the stone floor inside the building before the darkness swallowed the sunlight.

Shortwhiskers made a quick circle of the structure and reported no other entrances. The dwarf then stood before the doorway, peered carefully inside, and scanned the interior. He reported nothing warm-blooded inside. Brisbane thought that was odd, but the dwarf had been very specific. Nothing warm-blooded inside.

Roundtower was lightly running his fingertips over the engravings that surrounded the entrance when he cried out.

“I know these markings!”

The others gathered around. Roundtower spoke more to himself than to his companions. “I have not seen them used in a long time. They are ancient.”

Brisbane looked closely at the markings. They appeared as no more than meaningless scribbles to him. “What do they mean?”

Roundtower looked about as if noticing his friends for the first time. “They were used in the old worship rites of Grecolus. This one here,” the warrior said, placing his finger on a series of wavy lines crossing a circle, “stands for peace and safe passage for all loyal to Grecolus. The others are more obscure and I do not recall their individual meanings.”

Roundtower looked about at the blank faces of his companions. “Don’t you understand? This is a shrine of some sort. A shrine devoted to Grecolus!” The warrior’s voice was becoming quite agitated.

“And what of this sensation of permeating evil?” Roystnof asked.

Roundtower sobered. “As powerful as ever. That such a terror should inhabit such a holy place…it makes my blood boil. This evil is powerful, and I can still feel its presence.”

Brisbane was wondering how Roundtower could be so certain of this sightless evil when an icy voice croaked from deep inside the small building.

“Just as I can feel the presence of your holy blade, paladin. Come, and I will drown you in your own blood.”

The party froze. Brisbane at first thought he had imagined the words, but now he saw by the fear in the faces of his friends that it had chilled their bones, too. Brisbane had never heard the word ‘paladin’ before, but the voice from the shrine spoke it as a venomous curse.

Roundtower picked up his shield, which he had placed against the building, and tried to enter the shrine. Brisbane stopped him.

“Wait,” Brisbane said, unable to think of a reason. He only knew he was afraid of whatever it was that spoke in that horrible voice.

Roundtower turned harshly to Brisbane, but quickly softened his posture. He gently shrugged Brisbane’s hand off his shoulder. “I have been challenged, Gil. It is now a matter of honor.”

“I feel fear in your heart as well,” the cackling voice cried from the darkness. “I have won half the battle already. Face me, coward!”

Roundtower set his jaw. “And now I have been mocked. I must go.”

“Yes,” Roystnof piped in. “But not alone.”

The wizard brought his hand up in a sweeping gesture and spoke a single magic word. The darkened shrine exploded with bright light, shimmering from no apparent source. Roundtower held his shield before him as he entered. He was closely followed by Shortwhiskers. Before entering himself, Roystnof looked Brisbane in the face for a full second and slowly nodded his head.

This is it, Brisbane saw the wizard’s eyes say. This is forever the end of your peaceful life in Scalt as the son of Otis Parkinson the tavernkeeper. Step through this portal with me and hold onto your sword. For you need only your weapon, your wits, and the magic I have taught you to survive. It is a dangerous place that you go, but take heart, for you are not going alone.

Brisbane followed Roystnof into the shrine.