Thursday, July 25, 2013


“That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Old Beauty and Others by Willa Cather

I found out only after Googling this volume after I finished reading it that it contains what may be the last stories Willa Cather ever wrote. At least it was billed that way, and it was published a year after her death in 1947.

The one that stays with me is “The Best Years,” which strikes me almost like a first stab at My Antonia--where the symbol of goodness, family and love that Antonia represents is achingly filled by the character of Lesley Ferguesson, a young teacher, living away from her rural Nebraska family. Given the chance for a rare visit home by the itinerant superintendent of schools, Lesley takes the reader down a memory lane filled with nostalgia and homesickness.

Here, the narrator describes the place where her brothers are her slept and dreamed as children.

“Upstairs” was a story in itself, a secret romance. No caller or neighbor had ever been allowed to go up there. All the children loved it--it was their very own world where there were no older people poking about to spoil things. And it was unique--not at all like other people’s upstairs chambers. In her stuffy little bedroom out in the country Lesley had more than once cried for it.

Lesley and the boys liked space, not tight cubbyholes. Their upstairs was a long attic which ran the whole length of the house, from the front door downstairs to the kitchen at the back. Its great charm was that it was unlined. No plaster, no beaver-board lining; just the roof shingles, supported by long, unplanned, splintery rafters that sloped from the sharp roof-peak down to the floor of the attic. Bracing these long roof rafters were cross rafters on which one could hang things--a little personal washing, a curtain for tableaux, a rope wing for Bryan.

In this spacious, undivided loft were two brick chimneys, going up in neat little stair-steps from the plank floor to the shingle roof--and out of it to the stars! The chimneys were of red, unglazed brick, with lines of white mortar to hold them together.

Last year, after Lesley first got her school, Mrs. Ferguesson exerted her authority and partitioned off a little room over the kitchen end of the “upstairs” for her daughter. Before that, all the children slept in this delightful attic The three older boys occupied two wide beds, their sister her little single bed. Bryan, subject to croup, still slumbered downstairs near his mother, but he looked forward to his ascension as to a state of pure beatitude.

There was certainly room enough up there for widely scattered quarters, but the three beds stood in a row, as in a hospital ward. The children liked to be close enough together to share experiences.

Experiences were many. Perhaps the most exciting was when the driving, sleety snowstorms came on winter nights. The roof shingles were old and had curled under hot summer suns. In a driving snowstorm the frozen flakes sifted in through all those little cracks, sprinkled the beds and the children, melted on their faces, in their hair! That was delightful. The rest of you was snug and warm under blankets and comforters, with a hot brick at one’s feet. The wind howled outside; sometimes the white light from the snow and the half-strangled moon came in through the single end window. Each child had his own dream-adventure. They did not exchange confidences; every “fellow” had a right to his own. They never told their love.

If they turned in early, they had a good while to enjoy the outside weather; they never went to sleep until after ten o’clock, for then came the sweetest morsel of the night. At that hour Number Seventeen, the westbound passenger, whistled in. The station and the engine house were perhaps an eighth of a mile down the hill, and from far away across the meadows the children could hear that whistle. Then came the heavy pants of the locomotive in the frosty air. Then a hissing--then silence: she was taking water.

On Saturdays the children were allowed to go down to the depot to see Seventeen come in. It was a fine sight on winter nights. Sometimes the great locomotive used to sweep in armoured in ice and snow, breathing fire like a dragon, its great red eye shooting a blinding beam along the white roadbed and shining wet rails. When it stopped, it panted like a great beast. After it was watered by the big hose from the overhead tank, it seemed to draw long deep breaths, ready to charge afresh over the great Western land.

Yes, they were grand old warriors, those towering locomotives of other days. They seemed to mean power, conquest, triumph--Jim Hill’s dream. They set children’s hearts beating from Chicago to Los Angeles. They were the awakeners of many a dream.

You are so totally taken in by these remembrances, these irreplaceable and irretrievable mementos of the past, that when the inevitable blow falls, it comes down on you like a cudgel.

Miss Knightly, the superintendent who spent that weekend at home with Lesley, is traveling that winter, and strikes up a conversation with the train conductor, a man named Redman who hails from the same little town as Lesley. Their conversation quickly centers on a terrible blizzard that has blanketed Nebraska and disrupted train service throughout the region.

“I don’t know where I belong, Ma’m, and nobody else does. This is Jack Kelly’s run, but he got his leg broke trying to help the train crew shovel the sleeping-car loose in that deep cut out of W----. The passengers were just freezing. This blizzard has upset everything. There’s got to be better organization from higher up. This has taught us we just can’t handle an emergency. Hard on stock, hard on people. A little neighbor of ours--why, you must know her, she was one of your teachers--Jim Ferguesson’s little girl. She got pneumonia out there in the country and died out there.”

Miss Knightly went so white that Redman without a word hurried to the end of the car and brought back a glass of water. He kept muttering that he was sorry...that he “always put his foot in it.”

Miss Knightly wasn’t the only one who went white at receiving the news. It’s a testament to Cather’s craft that such an unexpected blow could be so effectively delivered.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Descent of Man by T. Coraghessan Boyle

This was a disappointment. Boyle is unquestionably one of my favorite authors, and this is among the worst collections of short stories I have read.

It’s his first. Maybe that forms part of the explanation. They do read more like writing exercises than stories--experimental pieces of fiction in which the young Boyle is only attempting to explore a particular concept, story idea, or literary form. Here’s the manifest of those easily passed over:

Descent of Man = Primate researcher falls in love with the chimp she’s teaching to speak in sign language.

The Champ = Eating contest champion challenged by young upstart; told in the style of a gritty boxing fable.

The Second Swimming = Something about Chairman Mao taking a swim.

Dada = Ida Amin brought to New York to reside over a Dada art festival because his nickname is Big Daddy.

The Extinction Tales = Some vignettes about species dying because of man’s actions.

Caye = Lives and loves of people living on a small island.

The Big Garage = An auto repair shop that is a waystation to nowhere on the existential highway of life.

Earth, Moon = The decay that happens on Earth while an astronaut is off on the Moon.

Quetzalcoatl Lite = Competitive collectors searching for ancient beer cans.

De Rerum Natura = An inventor whose inventions are new biological forms and the strange menagerie he attracts/creates.

John Barleycorn Lives = A battle of wits between women teetotallers and men who enjoy the drink.

Drowning = A foreshadowed drowning is lost amidst scenes of rape and violence.

None of these are stories in any real sense of the word. They are writing exercises--ones in which we can watch Boyle flex his narrative muscles, but none of which congeal into something that’s worth revisiting.

There are a few exceptions:

We Are Norsemen

A comic tale of a Norse bard and his band of marauders, sacking the New World and Ireland for whatever riches they will surrender. The unnamed narrator begins a bit sympathetic to the reader--the most cultured of his uncultured comrades--and the narrative voice piles on the literary allusions to help drive the point home. But at the end, in their last described sacking, the narrator focuses his anger on a lonely scribe.

The monk sat at a table, his hands clenched, head bent over a massive tome. He was just as I’d pictured him: pale as milk, a fringe of dark pubic hair around his tonsure, puny and frail. He did not look up. I growled again, and when I got no response I began to slash at candles and pitchers and icons and all the other superstitious trappings of the place. Pottery splashed to the floor, shelves tumbled. Still he bent over the book.

The book. What in Frigg’s name was a book anyway? Scratchings on a sheet of cowhide. Could you fasten a cloak with it, carry mead in it, impress women with it, wear it in your hair? There was gold and silver scattered round the room, and yet he sat over the book as if it could glow or talk or something. The idiot. The pale, puny, unhardy, unbold idiot. A rage came over me at the thought of it--I shoved him aside and snatched up the book, thick pages, dark characters, the mystery and magic. Snatched it up, me, a poet, a Norseman, an annihilator, and illiterate. Snatched it up and watched the old monk’s suffering features as I fed it, page by filthy page, into the fire. Ha!

And the reader turns on the narrator, recognizing how ignorant and short-sighted he is.

Heart of a Champion

A story about a dog--a collie like Lassie--that displays uncanny intelligence and facility in rescuing her boy owner from one desperate situation after another. Except this Lassie has fallen for an gives herself over to the carnal appetites of a “stunted, scabious, syphilitic” coyote.

We remark how odd it is that the birds and crickets have left off their cheeping, how puzzling that the background music has begun to rumble so. Suddenly, round a bend in the path before them, the coyote appears. Nose to the ground, intent, unaware of them. But all at once he jerks to a halt, shudders like an epileptic, the hackles rising, tail dipping between his legs. The collie too stops short, just yards away, her chest proud and shaggy and white. The coyote cowers, bunches like a cat, glares at them. Timmy’s face sags with alarm. The coyote lifts his lip. But then, instead of leaping at her adversary’s throat, the collie prances up and stretches her nose out to him, her eyes soft as a leading lady’s, round as a doe’s. She’s balsamed and perfumed; her full chest tapers to a lovely S to her sleek haunches and sculpted legs. He is puny, runted, half her size, his coat like a discarded doormat. She circles him now, sniffing. She whimpers, he growls: throaty and tough, the bad guy. And stands stiff while she licks at his whiskers, noses at his rear, the bald black scrotum. Timmy is horror-struck. Then, the music sweeping off in birdtrills of flute and harpstring, the coyote slips round behind, throat thrown back, black lips tight with anticipation.

The best part is the narrative style, which is conscious of its own scene setting and stage direction; short and clipped like an MTV video.

The jolting front seat of a Ford. Dad, Mom and the Doctor, all dressed in rain slickers and flap-brimmed rain hats, sitting shoulder to shoulder behind the clapping wipers. Their jaws set with determination, eyes aflicker with pioneer gumption.

Every word counts in that one.

The ending is not the best, but there is something going on here that’s deeper than just the idea and the narrative flair. Something about our view of the hero and the evolutionary forces that drive, in this case, her away from that which wins her our admiration.


A communal house, filled with hippies and druggies, is besieged when it inexplicably begins raining blood.

It started about three-thirty, a delicate tapping at the windows, the sound of rain. No one noticed: the stereo was turned up full and Walt was thumping his bass along with it, the TV was going, they were all stones, passing wine and a glowing pipe, singing along with the records, playing Botticelli and Careers and Monopoly, crunching crackers. I noticed. In that brief scratching silence between songs, I heard it--looked up at the window and saw the first red droplets huddled there, more falling between them. Gesh and Scott and Isabelle were watching TV with the sound off, digging the music, lighting cigarettes, tapping fingers and feet, laughing. On the low table were cheese, oranges, wine, shiny paperbacks, a hash pipe. Incense smoked from a pendant urn. The three dogs sprawled on the carpet by the fireplace, Siamese cats curled on the mantel, the bench, the chair. The red droplets quivered, were struck by other, larger drops falling atop them, and began a meandering course down the windowpane. Alice laughed from the kitchen. She and Amy were peeling vegetables, baking pies, uncanning baby smoked oysters and sturgeon for hors d’oeuvres, sucking on olive pits. The windows were streaked with red. The music was too loud. No one noticed. It was another day.

The prose is Boyle at his very best. The words are choice and full of depth and meaning, but nothing is played over the top--as it so easily could be, given the subject matter. An absolute joy to read.

A Woman’s Restaurant

This one is absolutely fascinating. Ostensibly a story about a man who wants to invade the sacred sanctuary of a restaurant that admits only female clientele, but also an exploration of the aboriginal female essence that has been a mystery misunderstood and oppressed by men throughout human history.

A woman’s restaurant. The concept inflames me. There are times, at home, fish poached, pots scrubbed, my mind gone blank, when suddenly it begins to rise in my consciousness, a sunken log heaving to the surface. A woman’s restaurant. The injustice of it, the snobbery, the savory dark mothering mystery: what do they do in there?

The restaurant is owned and managed by two women--Rubie and Grace--and they are a pair of opposites.

Grace, for instance. I know Grace. She is tall, six three or four I would guess, thin and slightly stooped, her shoulders rounded like a question mark. Midthirties. Not married. She walks her square-headed cat on a leash, an advocate of women’s rights. Rubie I have spoken with. If Grace is austere, a cactus tall and thorny, Rubie is lush, a spreading peony. She is a dancer. Five feet tall, ninety pounds, twenty-four years old. Facts. She told me one afternoon, months ago, in a bar. I was sitting at a table, alone, reading, a glass of beer sizzling in the sunlight through the window. Her arms and shoulders were bare, the thin straps of her dancer’s tights, blue jeans. She was twirling, on points, between groups of people, her laughter like a honky-tonk piano.

Or maybe not opposites--maybe they are twin poles of femininity, especially as viewed from afar the way our narrator does. And when Rubie comes close to violating the sacred sanctuary of their restaurant--admitting an man to whom she is naturally and wholesomely attracted--Grace, the stooped and rigid enforcer of the feminine mystique, acts to immediately rectify one of the sources of Rubie’s allure.

I shadowed Rubie for eight blocks this morning. There were packages in her arms. Her walk was the walk of a slow-haunching beast. As she passed the dark windows of the shops she turned to watch her reflection, gliding, flashing in the sun, her bare arms, clogs, the tips of her painted toenails peeping from beneath the wide-bottomed jeans. Her hair loose, undulating across her back like a wheatfield in the wind. She stopped under the candy-striped pole outside Red’s Barber Shop.

I crossed the street, sat on a bench and opened a book. Then I saw Grace: slouching, wide-striding, awkward. Her sharp nose, the bulb of frizzed hair. She walked up to Rubie, unsmiling. They exchanged cheek-pecks and stepped into the barber shop.

When they emerged I dropped my book: Rubie was desecrated. Her head shaven, the wild lanks of hair hacked to stubble. Charley Manson, I thought. Auschwitz. Nuns and neophytes. Grace was smiling. Rubie’s ears stuck out from her head, the color of butchered chicken. Her neck and temples were white as flour, blue-veined and vulnerable. I was appalled.

They walked quickly, stiffly, Rubie hurrying to match Grace’s long strides. Grace a sunflower, Rubie a stripped dandelion. I followed them to the woman’s restaurant. Rubie did not turn to glance at her reflection in the shop windows.

There’s a lot of this throughout A Woman’s Restaurant--narrative that works on the level of the story, but which also contain currents of deeper truth and exploration. In many ways, this is a real gem of this collection.

Green Hell

And finally...

There has been a collision (with birds, black flocks of them), an announcement from the pilot’s cabin, a moment of abeyed hysteria, and then the downward rush. The plane is nosing for the ground at a forty-five-degree angle, engines wheezing, spewing smoke and feathers. Lights flash, breathing apparatus drops and dangles. Our drinks become lariats, the glasses knives. Lunch (chicken croquettes, gravy, reconstituted potatoes and imitation cranberry sauce) decorates our shirts and vests. Outside there is the shriek of the air over the wings; inside, the rock-dust rumble of grinding teeth, molar on molar. My face seems to be slipping over my head like a rubber mask. And then, horribly, the first trees become visible beyond the windows. we gasp once and then we’re down, skidding through the greenery, jolted from our seats, panicked, repentant, savage. Windows strain and pop like light bulbs. We lose out bowels. The plane grates through the trees, the shriek of branches like the keen of harpies along the fuselage, our bodies jarred, dashed and knocked like the silver balls in a pinball machine. And then suddenly it’s over: we are stopped (think of a high diver meeting the board on the way down). I expect (have expected) flames.

There are no flames. There is blood. Thick clots of it, puddles, ponds, lakes. We count heads. Eight of us still have them: myself, the professor, the pilot (his arm already bound up in a sparkling white sling), the mime, Tanqueray with a twist (nothing worse than a gin drinker), the man allergic to cats (runny eyes, red nose), the cat breeder, and Andrea, the stewardess. The cats, to a one, have survived. They crouch in their cages, coated with wet kitty litter like tempura shrimp. The rugby players, all twelve of them (dark-faced, scowling sorts), are dead. Perhaps just as well.

Dazed, palms pressed to bruised organs, handkerchiefs dabbing at wounds, we hobble from the wreckage. Tanqueray is sniveling, a soft moan and gargle like rain on the roof and down the gutter. The mime makes an Emmett Kelly face. The professor limps, cradling a black briefcase with Fiskeridirektoratets Havforskningsinstitutt engraved in the corner. The cats, left aboard, begin to yowl. The allergic man throws back his head, sneezes.

We look around: trees that go up three hundred feet, lianas, leaves the size of shower curtains, weeds thick as a knit sweater. Step back ten feet and the plane disappears. The pilot breaks the news: we’ve come down in the heart of the Amazon basin, hundred perhaps thousands of miles from the nearest toilet.

The radio, of course, is dead.

So begins what may be the purest Boyle story in the collection--the one that is so brilliantly a parody of itself, and yet a story that entertains and keeps you engaged to the very end. It’s a work of genius, if only for the mime.

Hmmm. Maybe this collection of stories wasn’t so bad after all.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Six


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 69,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1991. All rights reserved.

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The day I set out on the journey to rescue Ignatius Roundtower with the dwarf Nog Shortwhiskers and a man I had known for six years as Roy Stonerow was a turning point in my life. That day I forever left the quiet life as the stepson of a tavernkeeper behind and set out on an adventure that would consume the rest of my days. My life had changed, perhaps subtly at first and without much notice, but changed just as sure as Roy Stonerow had become Roystnof. What I remember most about that journey to Queensburg is the conversation I had with Nog about his gods and religion. For the first time I was introduced to a different philosophy of gods and their creations, and it was a philosophy I found all the other races held. Only humans denied the existence of the gods of the other races and I had been taught this was the only true vision of the universe. Nog disagreed, but he did not seem upset that the humans called his gods pagan. Dwarves have their own truth and humans have theirs, he told me, and neither could prove the other false.

+ + +

The day came three weeks after Brisbane had been taken captive on the banks of the Mystic River, when the first of June rolled around with the eternal persistence of the calendar. Brisbane had been a studious pupil of orkish religion and magic and, as such, he knew the part he would have to play in the ceremony, but he had hardly thought of his involvement in anything more than the most superficial terms. He knew what he was expected to do but he hadn’t dwelt upon the implications of such action.

The ceremony was, essentially, a simple one. There was a special chamber in the caves, reserved for this purpose only, where the sacrifice would take place. It was large, as all the important chambers seemed to be, but it had relatively few furnishings. It was roughly oval-shaped with two features at each of the oval’s foci. At one, a short, stout pedestal stood, like the one in the pug-trolang, again with a golden incense burner atop it. At the other, two slender columns of stone rose from the floor, placed several feet apart and each with manacled chains driven into their stone. The victim was to be hung there by these chains locking over their wrists and, after the Grumak had conjured up the clan’s Demosk—the clan’s representative of Gruumsh One-Eye—the victim would be sacrificed for their blood.

Brisbane knew all these things. Ternosh had taught them all to him over their weeks together and when the first of June arrived, Ternosh expected his pupil to be ready and able to do his part. Brisbane wasn’t so sure. Still unwilling to make a fuss in front of the Grumak, afraid he would betray some trust and reveal Gruumsh One-Eye had not really sent him here, Brisbane outwardly learned his lessons and memorized his part, but inwardly his guts rolled at the thought of what he had to do and his head spun in a dizzy delusion. Alone and frightened, he again turned to Angelika for reassurance.

Angelika? he called out mentally one night. I don’t think I can go through with it.

Brisbane, you must. If you quit now you will destroy yourself and everything we have worked for so far.

But Angelika, isn’t it evil?

If your heart is not in it, it is not evil. It is undesirable, but it is something you must do if we are to extract our full vengeance.

But the prisoners. They are defenseless. They are human.

We have been over this before. Grecolus has provided for them. He has secured their places in the heavens and he has sent you and me here to avenge their deaths. Be patient and be strong, young Brisbane. The Clan of the Red Eye will not defile the earth for much longer.

Will we make them pay?

Yes, Brisbane. Oh, yes. We will make them pay for all eternity.

When, Angelika? When will we make them pay? When will I have you back?

Soon, young Brisbane. Be patient and be strong. The day of vengeance will come. I promise you that.

This, then, is how Brisbane met the first day of June, jittery and unsure of what he might have to do, but trusting enough to believe things would turn out all right in the end. The ceremony was to take place first thing in the morning and when Smurch roused him an hour before dawn, Brisbane quietly got dressed in his red and white robes and the small red hat Ternosh had told him to wear, and made his way to the instruction chamber to meet the Grumak.

Ternosh was there, awaiting his arrival and dressed in red robes and a cap similar to the one Brisbane wore. Wordlessly, he led Brisbane from the room and down a series of tunnels to the sacrificial chamber. Along the way, Brisbane tried to mentally prepare himself for the ordeal ahead, tried to put a wall around his feelings and sensitivities to protect them from the onslaught of horror they were surely about to receive.

When they arrived at the chamber, its torches brightly burning around the oval perimeter, Brisbane could see all the members of the klatru assembled in a rough and disjointed circle around the two objects in the center of the room. They stood at attention, as if in a military formation, and their unblinking eyes twinkled cruelly behind their pig noses. Hanging limp in the chains between the two stone columns was the nude and freshly washed body of the prisoner named Amanda. She was conscious and gagged, but her head hung forward in helpless surrender, her brown hair falling down to cover her face.

When Brisbane saw her hanging there, he almost lost all his nerve and broke down screaming on the spot. It was too much, too much, too much. Did it have to be her? There were three prisoners. Why did it have to be her? He kept walking, following Ternosh into the room, but his knees became weaker and weaker with every step. Just when he thought his next step would collapse under his weight, Angelika’s voice cut into his mind and hardened the jelly his muscles had become.

Strength, Brisbane. You can survive this. You must.

Angelika! Brisbane almost cried aloud. You will help me through this?

I will. This must be done.

Her presence filled Brisbane with a strange kind of resolve. Suddenly, he was determined to see this thing through to the end. Angelika was right, of course. How could he not have seen it before? He had to do this. If he balked, he would prove himself false to the orks and they would kill him for the symbol he wore. He did not want Amanda to die, but if she did not, he would never wield Angelika in combat again.

Brisbane took his position on the side of the pedestal as he had been taught to do. Ternosh stood on the other side, the golden incense burner sitting between them. The Grumak began to speak in orkish. Brisbane’s knowledge of the language had grown in three weeks, but it was still far from perfect. However, Ternosh had taught him what the ceremony words meant and he found he was able to understand them.

“With the blessing of Gruumsh One-Eye,” the Grumak said, “the klatru of the Clan of the Red Eye has once again gathered to pay rightful tribute to our master.”

“Glory and fame to Gruumsh One-Eye,” Brisbane chanted with the other orks in their native tongue.

“The sacrifice we offer today is the lifeblood of his enemy. May this not be the last.”

Again, the chant rang out. “Glory and fame to Gruumsh One-Eye.”

They’re serious about this, aren’t they, Angelika?

Yes. Their evil knows no bounds. The worship of false gods is forbidden.

Ternosh lifted the lid from the incense burner beside him and lit the fine red powder with a magic spark from one of his fingers. He replaced the cover as the thick white smoke began to smolder off the incense.

“I will now call up the Demosk that watches over the Clan of the Red Eye, the one called Ollikan, so he may witness our sacrifices to our master.”

“Glory and fame to Gruumsh One-Eye.”

The Grumak began his strange incantation to summon the Demosk from the battlefield of forever. Brisbane listened to the words and sounds Ternosh said, trying to make some sort of sense out of them. Over the past three weeks, he had been a student of Ternosh’s magic, learning its forms and its sources, but as yet, he had been unable to truly comprehend it.

It was strange. Ternosh’s magic did so many things in the clan—it kept the torches lit and unsmoking, for example, and it kept the water in the bath chamber warm and pure—so it obviously worked quite well for the Grumak. It was even responsible for the secret doors Vrak had taken Brisbane through in the Crimson Mountains. Ternosh had created them with his magic and set them to open whenever anyone said the word ursh-low, an orkish command to open, in their vicinity. But Brisbane had been unable to make the magic perform for him. It was a different style of magic, but the problem was somehow more than that. Brisbane was nowhere near proficient enough to work a complicated spell like the one used to conjure up the Demosk, but Ternosh felt he should be able to do the simple ones, like the one for starting fires, but so far there had been no success. Ternosh would watch Brisbane carefully, making sure he made the exact hand motions and pronounced the chants properly with the right pitches and inflections, and still nothing would result. It was very frustrating, for both Brisbane and Ternosh. It eventually reached the point where the Grumak became suspicious of whether or not Brisbane could really work magic at all, regardless of what the Demosk had said about his blood, and Brisbane had to resort to one of the cantrips Roystnof had taught him, conjuring up a small dragonfly, to prove he had the right to wear the pentacle medallion.

Now, looking at the pentacle carved into the stone on which the incense burner sat, Brisbane could not help but wonder what he had been doing wrong, why Ternosh could cast the orkish spells but he could not. Maybe it was physiological. The force of magic inside humans could be different from the one inside orks, and each could require different practices to call it forth. Perhaps the orkish chants he had painstakingly learned could not harness the human force inside him. That would mean Ternosh would not be able to cast the spells Brisbane had already learned. It warranted looking into.

The incense smoke was beginning to fill the chamber and it was getting hard for Brisbane to think clearly. He could hear the circle of klatru orks chanting in long, low tones, and he quickly remembered he was supposed to be doing the same. He joined the chorus at a pause for breath and continued to breathe in the smoke coming from the vents in the burner. Standing right next to it like he was, the effect on him was worse than it had been before, and he had to place a steadying hand on the pedestal to keep himself from swooning.

Through orange-scented smoke and watering eyes, Brisbane chanted and watched the body hanging in the chains before him. Amanda had raised her head and was looking around at her strange surroundings with eyes wide in fear and amazement. The strong scent of the smoke stung tartly at the inside of Brisbane’s nostrils as his eyes stared fixedly at the woman’s breasts while the rest of the world seemed to swim around them.

Beautiful, Brisbane thought absently, almost as if someone else thought it for him. They’re beautiful.

His eyes worked their way down her body, over her flat stomach to the patch of her brown pubic hair and down the slender muscles of her legs.

She’s lovely, Brisbane thought, the ideas forming themselves into words with difficulty. Her skin is so healthy and alive. How many other women are walking around with bodies like this hidden under their clothes? It’s wrong. How can they stand to hide such beauty away?

A light winked on next to Brisbane and interrupted his drug-affected thoughts. He started his head turning to see what the light could be and, seemingly hours later, after the muscles and tendons in his neck had creaked and strained under the labor of pivoting his head, he could see the Demosk had arrived and the light came from the eyeless apparition’s head and torso.

Angelika, I’m going to pass out. There’s too much smoke.

Remain strong, Brisbane. It will soon be over.

Brisbane felt like his feet had begun to float off the floor. Suddenly, pushing Angelika aside for the moment, the voice of the Demosk hammered its way into his brain.

“Grumak Ternosh, you have summoned me from the battlefield of Gruumsh One-Eye for what purpose?”

Again, the words in Brisbane’s ears were orkish but the ones in his head were in his own language.

“The time has come,” Ternosh said to the room more than to the Demosk, “for our monthly sacrifice to our master.”

“Glory and fame to Gruumsh One-Eye.” This time Brisbane forgot to add his voice to the chant.

“His eye is open,” the Demosk said. “Proceed.”

Now, Brisbane.

With a start, Brisbane moved forward as he was expected to do. His head cleared a little as he moved away from the pedestal, but it was still as if he was walking in a dream. He walked slowly around and behind the body of Amanda and did the only action Ternosh required him to do in the ceremony. He reached up and, grabbing a handful of her brown hair, pulled Amanda’s head back, exposing her neck to the Grumak who now stood directly in front of her.

It’s not that hard, Angelika. It is really such a small and easy thing to do.

It must be done, young Brisbane. Her death will be like an iron shield. It will protect us until we can strike back. Vengeance shall be ours.

Yes. Yes. Vengeance. We will make them pay for this.

Ternosh produced a pair of sharp daggers from the belts of his robe. He turned to face the Demosk as the congregated orks stopped their chanting and the Grumak held the knives high above his head.

“Behold!” the Grumak said, his voice rising above the smoke in the chamber. “The blood of the enemy will now be spilled upon our cavern floor.”

“Glory and fame to Gruumsh One-Eye.”

Ternosh whirled on Amanda and in two quick swipes, cut the daggers deep into each side of her neck, opening up dozens of major arteries and making the woman screech into her gag.

Brisbane released her hair and backed two or three steps away from her. In the smoky light he watched as twin rivers of her blood, almost black against the paleness of her skin, began to run down her naked body. The ichor spilled onto her shoulders, forked in half, and streaked down her front and back in streams that turned and split at every curve and swelling of flesh until it dripped from the tips of her toes like a leaky beer tap. The sight sickened and excited Brisbane at the same time and, as he watched the blood slide down her back and over the curves of her buttocks, he suddenly wondered, with a series of heart palpitations, what she must look like from the front, with her blood pouring down and around her breasts.

Angelika, what’s going on? Why do I feel so strange?

It is the smoke. The evil vapor is affecting you. The feeling will pass.

The circle of orks stood silently as all eyes watched the woman twist and jerk in her bonds, writhing in pain and desperation. Her blood was pooling up beneath her in a small concavity in the rock that was evidently meant for that purpose. Brisbane was surprised to see just how much blood was collecting there, but was even more surprised to see that he could see Amanda’s reflection in the surface of the pool, an unusual and intensely erotic view from below, with foreshortened legs, the cleft at her crotch, and the undersides of her breasts. These surprises did little to shock him out of his stupor. Time stretched out, and it seemed at one point as if he had been watching Amanda die for his entire life. Brisbane’s head began to throb and hurt and his nose seemed cracked open and dried to a crispy mess with the pungent treatment it had received. Tears ran freely down his face from his red eyes and his brain was swimming in a pool of nausea.

Eventually, it was finished. Amanda slowly stopped thrashing about as she bled to death, until she just hung from her chains like a side of beef in an ice house. When the life had finally flown from her, the silence in the chamber was broken by the voice of the Demosk.

“It is done. Gruumsh One-Eye thanks the Clan of the Red Eye for their offering and pledges another month of wealth and well-being.”

“Glory and fame to Gruumsh One-Eye.”

With that final chant, the figure of the Demosk vanished from the chamber and the smoke that made up its body stopped pouring out of the vents and began to quickly dissipate from the chamber. The black-clad orks, Tornestor in the lead with his two faithful followers in the red stripes, began to file out of the room.

Brisbane started to come back to himself. More so than ever before, the vanishing of the incense smoke left him feeling decidedly ill and weak in the knees. With the sickness came the rational judgment of what he had just done, what he had just taken part in. He looked up at Amanda’s body and all the tremors of excitement he had felt for her beauty were gone. What he saw now was ugly, uglier than anything he had ever seen before. What he saw was death, yes, but it was a death for no good reason. A messy, torturous death in service to a god that did not exist.

Never again, Angelika. I will not let this happen again.

I promise you, young Brisbane, it will not. Together we will put an end to such perversion. Our vengeance will be complete and eternal.


Brisbane saw Ternosh appear from behind one of the pillars that supported Amanda’s naked body. For a moment, he was filled with such hate at the Grumak and his entire miserable race that he almost leapt at the ork in savage fury, intent on ripping his heart out of his chest. But the moment passed, and it was quickly replaced by feelings of nausea and a pounding headache. The fight left Brisbane as quickly as it had come and now he only wanted to lay down.

“Brisbane, are you all right?”

Brisbane staggered forward and leaned heavily against one of the stone columns. He nearly stepped in the pool of Amanda’s blood, already crusting over with a thin film.

“Yes,” Brisbane said wearily. “It’s just all that smoke. It makes me woozy.”

Ternosh seemed upset by this news. “You have said this before. I do not know why it should affect you so. None of us grugan experience any distress.”

Brisbane did not care about any of this. “If you don’t mind, Ternosh, I think I’ll go lay down in my chamber for a while.”

“Of course,” the Grumak said. “Would you like me to help you?”

Brisbane waved him off and slowly began to move away from the pillar. Before he had gone three steps, his head spinning like a top, he lost his balance and collapsed to his knees.

“Brisbane!” Ternosh cried out in shock and he went over to him to prevent him from toppling over. “I had no idea the smoke would affect you so. You weren’t this weak in the pug-trolang.”

Brisbane closed his eyes and tried to will the floor to remain level. “Too much,” he mumbled. “I was too close to that damn burner.”

“Come on,” Ternosh said. “Let’s get you to your chamber.”

As the Grumak was helping his Grum rise to his feet, Brisbane lost consciousness.