The Fall of Ur
Peter Jason Payne
Copyright © 2016 Peter Jason Payne
All rights reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR 40
Salmacis was a beautiful nymph who fell in love with a handsome young man named Hermaphroditos. She was gathering flowers on the day she saw him. He was so beautiful that, when she caught sight of him, she dropped her flowers and ran to him straightaway.
As the nymph approached Hermaphroditos, his large eyes widened and his cheeks blushed a rosy red. The startled boy didn’t know what to do as this divine creature suddenly embraced him.
-I love you. Now you must love me.
The boy, put off by her unexpected demand tried to pull away, but she was a nymph, a nature deity, and he was just a mortal boy. Try as he might, he could not free himself of her embrace.
-Why do you resist? Why won’t you love me?
She was now angry and frustrated, and her ultimatum fell from her pretty lips with zealous passion:
-You will love me!
This frantic demand caused the stunned boy to struggle all the more.
He spoke the word firmly, yet its tone was so melodious that it did nothing but stoke her passion.
-Venus, Goddess of love, grant me this wish: may this beautiful boy and I be united!
The goddess heard Salmacis’ plea. Yet, taking the request a bit too literally, she united the love-struck nymph and the unwilling boy, not in love, but in flesh.
Nymph and mortal merged and were separate no longer, but of one flesh, a newly born deity both male and female: Hermaphroditus.
The temple was filled with students of magic. High Priest Magus presided in the great hall. Massive pillars held up the vaulted roof. Bright sunlight shone through stained glass windows. Male students sat on rows of stone pews. They ranged in age from thirteen to twenty-one summers, and wore leather sandals and gray woolen robes. Some wore pouches attacked to leather belts around their waist. These pouches contained herbal spell components as well as written spells on folded parchment. Others wore necklaces, bracelets or carried staffs, all of which were magical in nature.
Cade stood at the front of the temple, close to its dais. The young man swayed on his feet. Sweat soaked his gray robe and ran down his flushed skin. Black hair curled damply against his forehead. The humid air was laced with the musky smell of sweat. The young man’s vision blurred, his legs buckled.
Mitra preserve me! It was a common phrase spoken by those in need. Cade invoked the words in his mind and steeled himself against the stagnant heat and countless bodies that pressed him in.
Cade used one foot to remove the leather sandal from the other. He placed the naked sole of his foot to the cool, tiled floor and felt a measure of relief. He wrinkled his nose as a mageling broke wind. Now a mageling in front of him coughed loudly. Behind him, a talkative duo were whispering idle gossip. Cade strained to hear the high priest above the distractions. He was but one of many young men, lined in orderly rows within this temple. The militant city-state of Ur specialized in warfare. Every able-bodied young man of financial means was trained in warrior-magecraft, and sooner-or-later found themselves in this graduation ceremony, housed in the Temple of Mitra, God of War. Today there were fifty rows of twenty boys each, the youngest in the back, the oldest in the front.
At the front of the great Temple of Mitra, High Priest Magus was elevated on a dais for all to see. He wore the garb of a warrior priest: a gray robe covered by a breastplate, steel gauntlets, a mace, and a chainmail headpiece. Behind him was a stone altar, dark red with the blood of bull sacrifices. Behind the altar stood the imposing, granite statute of Mitra, God of Warriors.
Now came the litany:
“Fight for what is good,
Fight for what is right,
Justice and truth
Is the source of our might.”
The high priest’s words echoed off the stone walls of the great temple. The voice was deep and harsh, almost guttural. That same voice had spoken countless prayers on the battlefield, prayers that had brought down lightning and hail from the sky, prayers that had opened the ground, swallowing enemy armies whole, prayers that had summoned black clouds that eclipsed the sun, causing enemy soldiers to flee in fear.
Now that same voice called out the great litany a second time. Gray robed students answered the calling. The multitude of young voices was deafening.
“Fight for what is good,” the high priest said as he raised gauntleted hands.
Mitra is good! The students replied.
“Fight for what is right!”
Mitra is right!
“Justice and truth…”
Mitra is Justice, Mitra is Truth!
“…is the source of our might!”
Mitra is our might!
Cade drew on his warrior discipline to steady himself in this hot, oppressive hall. This was a very special occasion, and he had to be at his best. Each year, the city’s vast class of graduating mageling-cadets were ranked by their accomplishments and placed into tiers. To be placed into a high tier was a great honor for oneself and one’s family. Upper tier students usually went on to become high-ranking commanders: powerful warrior mages of the highest caliber. In a city that valued warfare above all else, high military rank was every young man’s desire.
Cade sensed furtive movement besides him; Weiss had glanced at him. “Maintain your military bearing. Don’t faint, man. You’ll make me look bad.”
“I’m fine,” Cade whispered. “I just felt dizzy for a second.”
Cade stood next to his blood brother Weiss, shoulder to shoulder. Now the tall, black-haired youths glanced at each other with hopeful expressions, each daring to believe they would be promoted to top tier.
The blood brothers had both studied hard over the last few years. By day they studied the arts of war and magecraft, and by night, instead of relaxing, socializing with friends, and getting much-needed rest, they would practice their lessons until well-past the witching hour. Now they both stood in breathless anticipation, waiting to see the fruits of their labors.
The third tier―or silver tier―was called. Although lower than the second and first tiers, the third tier was still an honorable distinction. Next the second tier―or gold tier―was called.
Then the moment came. It was time to name the five students, from highest to lowest, who had made the first tier. This was the platinum tier, the highest honor.
Weiss and Cade were blood brothers, paired for life as companion warriors. Both lived in abject poverty, yet a promotion to first tier would guarantee them lives of wealth and privilege. When they weren’t at the temple, uniformed in standard issue gray robes, they wore threadbare leggings and tunics that could have been mistaken for rags, and lived in huts that weren’t fit to be called hovels.
They cared for their mothers―both young men were fatherless―and dreamed of the wonderful tales these women would tell them of the glory and honor that awaited them… if they studied hard and followed Mitra with their whole heart.
The city of Ur was always at war, and casualties were inevitable. Cade and Weiss’ fathers had both died honorable deaths in combat. Before their deaths, their fathers had offered them as mageling-cadets to the temple’s School of War and Magic, and both boys had been accepted. Soon after, their father’s had died and their families had plunged into poverty. Their mothers’ were unable to pay tuition, and the boy’s continued enrollment was in doubt. Fortunately, a wealthy patron had seen their potential and the kindly man became their benefactor, helping their widowed mothers pay the schools exorbitant fees.
Years passed, and the young men’s instructors were pleased by the rate at which these fatherless boys progressed. Their success played into the city’s militant philosophy, a philosophy which stated that anyone could excel in life if they stoically dedicated themselves to the art of warfare.
Now here they stood today, Cade and Weiss, beaming in joy, as they were called to the dais by the high priest. He anointed them with oil and promoted them both, not to the rank of compulsory, decurion, princeps prior, or decanus… but dominus, the highest rank of the highest tier.
After the ceremony, Cade and Weiss smiled as they clasped each other’s shoulders.
“We did it!” they said.
All the blood brothers could think of were the war-filled, good times that lay ahead. There were neighboring cities to conquer, defiant enemies to smite, rogue warlords to vanquish… oh, the military glories that lay ahead!
Now the two young men stood back-to-back in the center of the Temple of Mitra. They had gone there for sanctuary and found none. Their arms were a blur as they defended themselves from the enemies that surrounded them. On the battle went, with Weiss and Cade slashing and stabbing, keeping the endless waves of creatures at bay… just barely. As the creatures attacked, their bodies continued to transform. Nails lengthened into claws. Teeth became fangs. The human enemies were no longer mortal foes. They were demonic nightmares.
In the city-state of Ur, warfare was a joy, and death in battle a great honor. Yet this current battle was no joy, because Cade and Weiss weren’t fighting foreigners; they were fighting their own citizenry. Ever since last night, average folk had been transforming, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, into ghoul-like things with slashing claws and gnashing teeth.
“Hurry up with the spell!” Cade shouted.
“Interrupt me again, and you’ll ruin it!”
Cade knew from years of personal experience that more powerful spells took time to perform… but the blood brothers were running out of time. Cade’s body was exhausted from the day’s endless fighting. It seemed as if the entire city of Ur had gone mad and turned against them. For each bloodthirsty citizen Cade struck down, ten more rose to take its place.
The temple room they now fought in was crawling with opponents. Cade was preparing to defend himself from another attack. He felt Weiss’ body heat behind him. They were both sweating from their efforts.
Killing their own neighbors brought tears to the blood brother’s eyes. Yet in truth these citizens were no longer human. Their eyes glowed with hatred and rage as they assaulted the two mage warriors again and again. Were it not for their rank of dominus and the hard work they had put into achieving that rank, the two young men would have been slaughtered by midday. Their exceptional skill, fuelled by Mitra himself, was what had kept them alive for the last few blood-soaked hours.
“Close your eyes!” Weiss yelled.
One of the creatures leapt at Cade. He needed to see, to dodge the blow and counterattack. Yet he trusted his blood brother. So when Weiss said “Close your eyes,” he did just that.
Even with eyes closed he could sense the burst of bright light that filled the room.
“Retreat, now!” Weiss screamed.
Cade opened his eyes. The blinded creatures stumbled through the room and into each other, slashing and biting.
The two young men wended their way through the room, keeping an arm’s length from each blinded, snarling monstrosity. Cade reached the room’s door just as Weiss opened it. The two ran into the great hall and slammed the door behind them.
Cade was about to head towards the entryway when he noticed Weiss turning towards the central staircase. “Where are you going?”
“We must see the high priest,” Weiss said.
“No, we need to get out of here!”
Weiss put a booted foot on the first step, preparing to ascend. “The high priest will know what’s happening. He’s Pontifex Maximus, the greatest of all, second only to Mitra himself. If anyone can assist us, it is he.”
Cade sighed. His faith in his blood brother was still strong, and so he turned round from the massive front double doors and followed Weiss up the stairs. Weiss was spent from his last spell, and so now Cade chanted as the young men leapt up the spiraling metal staircase, two steps at a time. The staircase narrowed as they climbed it. Now they were in one of the temple’s four towers.
A howl echoed up the stairwell, followed by many more.
Cade reached into his waist pouch as he ran, checking his spell components.
The howls from below reached a deafening crescendo as the creatures neared the young men. Cade turned his head around, and hazarded a quick look. The creatures were hot on his trail. Their arms were stretched out, ready to rend him to bloodied ribbons. Now the howls became gleeful gibbers as the creatures prepared to pounce on their prey.
Cade grabbed a dried petal from his pouch. It was no ordinary petal, but one plucked from the hellfire flower. He turned towards the creatures as he chanted, and stood his ground.
His chanting reached its climax and then Cade released the searing petal from his hand. The red spell component fluttered in the air and then burst into a ball of flame that shot down the staircase, incinerating everything that stood in its blazing path.
“Good job, brother!” Cade felt Weiss’ hand grab him and pull him up the stairs.
The surviving creatures were stumbling upwards, through the sizzling hot ashes of the fallen. Many had died, yet many still remained. The survivors crowded the narrow stairwell, jumbled against each other as they continued their pursuit.
The two blood brothers bounded up the stairs. Moments later, they reached its summit.
Weiss quickly fished the brass door talisman from his side pocket. He pressed the metal against the oak portal. The brothers ran through the door as soon as it opened and then closed the magically fortified wood behind them.
Magus’ chamber was large and circular. The stone walls were punctuated by six stained glass windows. Each window depicted one of the six original founders of the Temple of Mitra. The stained glass figures wore armor and each one held a gauntleted finger to the sky, signifying that their might came from a higher power.
“Dominus Weiss, Dominus Cade… it is a pleasure. I’ve been expecting you.” Magus sat at his desk, his face serene, his manner relaxed.
“Madness has befallen us!” Cade screamed. “The city is under attack by its own citizens! They were slaughtering each other, but when they saw us, they banded together and have pursued us ever since!”
Magus raised a hand. “Silence,” he said, and then, “I hoped this day would never come. The curse of Hermaphroditus has befallen us.” Now he mumbled to himself in a wavering voice. “I should have killed him when I had the chance. He was my own flesh and blood, but I should have killed him no less.”
“Killed who? Surely you don’t mean Hermaphroditus. Gods cannot be killed. They are immortal. Magus, what do you mean? Are you alright?” The young men eyed the high priest, not understanding his strange mumblings and inappropriately relaxed manner.
“It’s my fault the city is in shambles. Yet there is nothing I can do about it. I am no longer Pontifex Maximus. Mitra has forsaken me, and in my stead he has chosen you.”
The high priest stood from his desk. The blood brothers stared at Magus in shock, finally understanding his relaxed, serene composure. It wasn’t serenity they had witnessed, but a slack weakness from blood loss. He had opened his veins, and now his life force was slipping away.
Cade and Weiss rushed to assist the high priest but he resisted their efforts.
“I die willingly, at my own hands,” he said, “to atone for the sins of my first born son. I saw this day coming, but I was too ashamed to speak up and warn you and the city of my son’s abominations. Now listen carefully. There is a great evil beneath this…”
Suddenly the oak door of the room shook. Magus cut his speech short. He pressed bloody fingertips to his forehead, as if trying to focus his thoughts.
“I’m using every ounce of my psychic strength to keep those creatures at bay,” Magus pointed to the door. “When I die…”
“No you won’t!” Cade said.
“…when I die the door will burst open and those vile beings will pour in.” Magus gasped. His eyes fluttered. “Take my power, and prepare to fight!”
The high priest shuddered and fell back into his chair. His face was empty of all expression as his unblinking eyes stared at the door.
Cade screamed. Weiss doubled over in pain. The dead man’s life force flowed into the two young men. It was a painful experience, yet as the pain increased, Cade and Weiss felt their own strength waxing.
Just then the door buckled. The hinges creaked, and then the door broke free of the wall as a sea of unholy creatures charged into the room.
The blood brothers looked at each other grimly and then hefted their swords. The pain of the soul transference faded, and in a blaze of adrenaline Cade and Weiss leapt into the fray. Their swords flashed like quicksilver, and creatures fell, one after the other. Soon they were all dead. The young men stood ankle deep in the slaughter. The bodies of the dead littered the floor from wall to wall. The young men cried over the spent lives of their fellow citizens, still clueless as to what had transformed them into monsters.
Now came the rumbling of pounding feet. Sure enough, another wave of creatures were entering the room.
Weiss chanted his light spell, the magic coming faster now that he possessed a measure of Magus’ essence.
Cade closed his eyes as the room lit up. Yet when he opened his eyes, the creatures were still staring at him with vicious, hateful glares.
Cade began his own chant as he pulled a hellfire petal from his pouch. As the magic’s flame shot out, the creatures sidestepped it, and it passed them harmlessly.
“They learned from our previous attacks!” Cade said.
Instead of attacking head on as before, the creatures now circled the duo cautiously. When they finally leapt at Weiss and Cade the monsters side skirted swinging weapons with a deftness they had not previously possessed. The creatures struck, again and again, drawing gouts of blood from the young men.
A new spell materialized in Cade’s mind, as if from thin air. It was a powerful spell, one that only a spell caster as powerful as Magus could command. Cade made an intricate gesture in the air. The movements were alien to him, and he realized the knowledge had come from the transference.
A burst of crackling energy erupted from Cade’s hand and shot towards his enemies. The lightning jumped from one creature to the next, and as the victims sizzled the air filled with smoke of their cooked flesh.
“They’re all dead,” Weiss said, “but are any more coming?”
The two young men listened for the pounding feet of another assault but heard none.
For the first time that day, they let their guard down and breathed a sigh of relief.
“That lightning spell was incredible!” Weiss said. “You were amazing!”
“And you’re bleeding,” Cade replied, concerned over his companion’s numerous wounds.
“So are you.”
They cut strips from their robes with their daggers and used the woolen cloth to bandage themselves.
Now the exhausted blood brothers walked to the body of their fallen high priest. They spoke a prayer that would send his soul peacefully to the afterlife. Afterwards, they kneeled before the statue of Mitra that stood between two stained glass windows.
“Protect us, Lord. Show us your favor…”
It was a simply prayer meant to show their devotion and trust in their god. They didn’t expect anything miraculous to come of it. Yet as they prayed, objects in the room began to glow: Magus’ cache of armor and weaponry.
“It’s a sign,” Weiss said. “Mitra is giving us permission to take the high priest’s weapons.”
The two began arming themselves. Weiss took Magus’ mace. Cade armed himself with Magus’ broadsword. They swapped their footwear with spike soled boots, and put on fresh robes and leggings from Magus’ chest. They had never worn military tunics, but the tunics were glowing, as well as a pair of padded shirts. On went the shirts and tunics as well as steel gauntlets and breastplates.
Mitra was guiding the young men, leading them through the room and pointing out, with a divine glow, the accoutrements of warfare they would need in the ensuing battle.
“Everything fits us perfectly,” Cade said. “It’s almost as if Magus had collected this cache expressly for us.”
“Mitra must have guided him,” Weiss replied. “I doubt he did it of his own free will. He said he knew these horrors were going to happen… but he didn’t warn us. He lied to us.”
“No,” Cade corrected. “High priests don’t lie. He simply omitted the truth. He said he did it out of shame. Something about his son.”
“You mean that effete, carrot-topped boy?” Weiss said. “Bah! How could that fairy have caused any of this? Dex is a weakling with no power in the least. Besides, I doubt the boy was even Magus’ son. I think he was an orphan the high priest raised out of pity.”
“Well, whatever the case,” Cade said, “let’s get the hell out of here while we can, and figure out a new game plan.”
The young men prepared to leave the room when they suddenly caught sight of one last glowing object. It was a scroll on Magus’ desk.
Cade unfurled it. “It’s a map,” he said after studying it, “a map of the caverns under the temple. Whatever evil is afoot is radiating from underground.”
“How do you know that?” Weiss said.
Cade thought back to the lightning that had leapt from his hand. He had never studied that spell; it had obviously come from the transference. Magus’ power was now in him, as well as his knowledge. It was reflexive knowledge and reflexive magic that would manifest instantaneously as the need arose.
“Mitra blessed us through Magus’ self-sacrifice,” Cade said, “giving us great abilities in our time of need.” He looked down at the unfurled scroll and Weiss followed his gaze.
“I think you’re right,” Weiss said, pointing to a spot on the map. “This is the entrance to the caverns. There’s a hidden door in a cellar below us. That door will give us access to what we seek.”
Cade looked at Weiss in wonder, his suspicions confirmed.
“Don’t ask me how I knew that,” Weiss said. “It just came to me. Now let’s get down there and sort this mess out!”
Dex had never been loved by his family, or so he told himself. He was the only redhead of his entire clan, and at times he wondered if his unusual hair colour had something to do with the mild disdain his relatives expressed towards him.
He was often called by names that were not his own. Carrot head, blood head, pumpkin head, coppertop, flame boy, red devil… the list was endless. The fact that his eyes were violet and his skin sensitive to sunlight only made matters worse.
Moreover, Dex was the runt of the family, his puniness a disgrace to his warrior father: Pontifex Maximus Magus, ruler and high priest of Ur. Magus had never openly expressed his disdain for his son, but Dex sensed it nonetheless. Dex was a failure at spellcasting and his fighting skills were laughable. He couldn’t bear the touch of sunlight on his skin and his weak violet eyes saw the world in an unfocused blur.
Oh, but could he dance! He had a love and rhythm for music, that most men lacked, and a flair for fashion that irritated his austere, stoic family.
Instead of practicing magecraft and swordplay, Dex spent his time learning elaborate quadrilles and other dances that were currently in vogue amongst the more hedonistic city folk.
At decadent parties, his girlfriends would ply him with drink, egging him onto the ballroom floor. They’d clap their hands in glee as he entertained them with complex dance moves that no one else seemed dexterous enough to perform. On occasion, they would even dress him in their clothing, and once more clap their hands as they took in his pale, exotic beauty.
“You’re more gorgeous than I am!” one girlfriend had said as she stroked his flame-coloured hair and lost herself in his amethyst eyes.
Dex kept these hedonistic exploits a secret from his family, and his father in particular. Moreover, he was always asking questions, questions his father was loathe to answer.
“Why am I the only person in the family with red hair? And what about my eyes? Why do I look so different from everyone else?”
At times, Dex would go into the royal family catacombs adjacent to the great Temple of Mitra, and stare at the carved faces of the sarcophagi that lined its walls. No one ever visited the catacombs. They were a gloomy place of thick cobwebs, decaying wood, and death. The living graced its mouldering halls only during an interment, and then hastily left after the ceremony was over.
Dex, however, practically lived in the catacombs, visiting them on a weekly basis. The sun’s harsh rays irritated his alabaster skin, breaking it out into dark, itchy freckles. Yet here in the cool darkness of the catacombs he was soothed from the bright harshness of life above ground.
That boy, he would think as he stood alone in the catacombs, staring at a painted sarcophagus, why, he looks just like me!
The paint was faded and moisture had rotted the wooden facial carving, yet Dex could just barely make out the red ochre paint used to colour the hair of the funeral receptacle.
And then days later, after carefully scrutinizing dozens of other sarcophagi by candlelight, he would discover yet another face that resembled his own, with the same red hair and hint of violet on its painted wooden eyes.
Dex dragged his father down to the catacombs one night, eagerly pointing to one of the decayed face carvings.
“That boy is a spitting image of me!”
“No,” Magus said. “You’re mistaken.”
“But his hair is vermillion and his eyes are lavender, the colours are similar mine!”
“Hmpf. How could you possibly make out his hair and eye colour?” Magus demanded. “The colours are faded, decomposed by time!”
Dex held the torch close to the carved face.
“Careful!” his father chided. “You’ll set it on fire! You know flames are not permitted in the catacombs, save for interment ceremonies. Why I tolerate your antics is beyond me.”
“Can’t you see it, right there?” Dex said. “Just the slightest hints of red and violet?”
“His name was Namu, and he looked nothing like you! He died a hundred years ago during the year of the Summer Sickness. Many people died that year. His life, cut short at such a young age, was a tragedy. His memory should be respected as well as his remains, not gawked over in the most irreverent of manners!”
Dex had subsequently dropped the matter, realizing his father would be of no help. There was something else about the sarcophagus that had caught Dex’s attention, something he had almost shared with his father, but in hindsight was glad that he hadn’t.
The bodies of the royal Marburg dead were to be treated with the utmost of respect. Once interred, the remains were never to be disturbed again. Yet a few nights after his frustrating talk with his father, Dex opened one of the carved and painted sarcophagi that so closely resembled his own features. He removed the face mask―which was a spitting image of his own face―and then cut open the head bandages of the corpse and gasped. As expected, Dex had immediately seen the warped features of a desiccated mummy. Yet the corpse, preserved through mummification, still retained its hair: red hair, dull and faded from the ages, yet red nonetheless. Its mouth was open, the lips shriveled back from brown teeth. Something in its mouth shone in the light of Dex’s candle. Holding back his revulsion, Dex reached his hand into the mouth and pulled out a tarnished silver coin. It was a coin of binding, placed under the tongue of the wicked dead. Supposedly it kept their spirits from doing any further harm to the living. Dex studied the coin. It was carved with the symbol of Hermaphroditus, the twin sibling and arch enemy of Mitra, God of War. The face had been scratched out, purposely defaced, but Dex could recognize the god’s image by its hermaphrodite body.
The revelation was shocking. As the weeks passed, Dex began piecing the mystery together. As he pilfered other red-haired sarcophagi, he found coins in their mouths, one and all.
The male family portraits in his home, stretching back two-hundred years, all bore the dark hair, brown eyes and swarthy facial characteristics that were common to the Marburg bloodline. Not one portrait was of a red head. Was there something disgraceful about Dex’s red-headed ancestors? Something that kept them from receiving the same reverence given to their dark-haired counterparts?
There was an ancient superstition, no longer in popular belief, that red-headed males were the spawn of Hermaphroditus, god of sex, love and passion. Hermaphroditus eschewed warfare, and in the bellicose city of Ur, temples to Hermaphroditus were forbidden, and the mere mention of the god’s name was frowned upon.
It was rumored within Dex’s family that a secret temple to Hermaphroditus existed in the caverns under the great temple of Mitra. At the time, the notion had seemed ridiculous to Dex. No one visited the caverns. They were a desolate, dangerous, labyrinthine place where one could get lost, forever.
One day as Magus passed Dex’s bedchamber, he caught the young man dancing a loose-wristed jig to the sounds of a fiddle his girlfriend was playing as she lounged on his bed. The girl had dressed Dex in silken robes and was laughing in pleasure as she watched her androgynous playmate entertain her in dance.
As soon as Magus saw his son, the man’s expression turned to fury. “You’re supposed to be a warrior! You’re supposed to be a man! You have brought disgrace upon our house!”
The frightened girlfriend made her hasty retreat, after which Magus ripped the silken robes from Dex’s body, and scrubbed the rouge from the boy’s cheeks, and the lipstick from his mouth until Dex’s skin smarted from the rough handling.
“If you ever disgrace our family again, I will kill you with my own hands!”
Magus then stormed out the room, leaving Dex terrified and in tears.
That night, the final pieces of the puzzle fell in place: Dex’s feminine ways, his family’s disdain of him, the lack of red-haired portraits in the family’s home, the coins of binding in the mouths of his red-haired ancestors. These redheads who preceded him had all died young, their small sarcophagi spoke of such. Had he asked Magus, his father would have claimed they had died from fever or consumption or some unfortunate accident.
If you ever disgrace our family again, I will kill you with my own hands!
His father’s words haunted him, and Dex realized that, within his bloodline, red hair carried with it fey affectations, affectations that were dealt with via murder. The Marburgs were a noble warrior family, not a clan of foppish, effete dandies who rouged their cheeks and painted their lips.
For the next few weeks, Dex tried to straighten himself out, so-to-speak. To the delight of his father, he began practicing sword craft in earnest, and studying the spells of warrior magecraft. Yet hard as he tried, the spells wouldn’t work. Moreover he’d forget their words and gestures shortly after studying them. And despite his dexterity and hours of practice, his sword practice amounted to nothing.
One night in the depths of despair, unsure of what to do, and not knowing who to turn to, Dex prayed to Hermaphroditus. To the young man’s surprise, the shadowy god answered him.
Dex waited until nightfall, and then slipped out of his family’s imperial villa. He traversed the city like a spy, running from building to building as stealthily as possible, and then pressing up against walls and peeking round corners to see if the coast was clear for another sprint.
Dex made it to the Temple of Mitra, and by the grace of Hermaphroditus slipped past the guards. He entered an open window and, keeping to the shadows, traversed the temple corridors unseen until he reached the cellars below.
He ran his hands against the walls of limestone, smearing his fingers with white, chalky residue. After feeling the walls for less than a minute, he found it: the secret passage that Hermaphroditus had revealed to him in his dreams. Dex took a defaced coin he had pilfered from one of the corpses in the family catacombs and pressed it against the wall. In response, the limestone exterior shimmered into nothingness, revealing an empty corridor.
Dex walked through the portal and followed the corridor as it descended deeper and deeper. Soon he was within the caverns beneath the temple, and he made his way through the darkness effortlessly, guided by the spirit of Hermaphroditus.
After an hour of travel, Dex smelled smoke, and then noticed a light in the distance.
A bonfire had been lit in the center of a vast cavern. Around it danced the queerest creatures Dex had ever seen. They were naked and of no one discernable gender. Breasts and cocks swayed as the hermaphrodites danced blissfully around the great bonfire to the bass of a drumbeat that pounded an insistent rhythm.
As Dex’s vision adjusted to the firelight he saw that there were others in the cavern besides the hermaphrodites. Handsome men and gorgeous women, all in partial states of undress, mingled with the hermaphrodites on the outskirts of the faerie ring. Wine flasks were passed from one person to the next and strange fumes were inhaled from smoking braziers.
One of the hermaphrodites turned to Dex and smiled. “Join us.”
It possessed the beauty of a woman, notwithstanding its erect cock.
When a fetching lass―with erect nipples and a swollen labia and clitoris―repeated the hermaphrodite’s invitation, Dex obliged.
He shucked off his clothes and, taking the girl in one arm and the hermaphrodite in the other, entered the ring.
He danced and danced amidst the press of sweating bodies and the fumes from the braziers left him giddy with pleasure. No one laughed at him. No one called him carrot head or purple pansy. No one threatened to kill him with their bare hands. As Dex danced his signature limp-wristed jig, he realized he had nothing to fear
This motley group was one of his kind.
Only after he had tired of dancing and drinking and inhaling the braziers’ intoxicating fumes did he notice the statue of Hermaphroditus that stood within a shadowed portion of the cavern.
It was a massive statue that possessed the face of a beautiful woman and the voluptuous breasts and hips of a temptress. Its carved legs were long and shapely. Yet between its thighs hung the organs of manhood. What truly shocked Dex was the god’s face. He had never seen an image of Hermaphroditus in its fullness. Any remaining images of the god in the city had been defaced, with the features of the head and face chipped away, as well as that of the sexual organs. Yet now as Dex gazed on this undesecrated image of Hermaphroditus, he could see its eyes and face, and more importantly, their colour. Its eyes were painted the same amethyst as his own, and its hair the same shade of crimson red.
Meanwhile, a muscular nude man was dancing closer and closer to the bonfire, and with a flourish of his hand threw a handful of herbs into the crackling flames. Now a large breasted woman danced towards the flames and threw in a handful of herbs as well.
Everyone in the cavern was a blonde or brunette. No one else possessed Dex’s long red locks. He was unique amongst them. This wasn’t merely a dance, Dex realized. It was a ritual, and as the revelers stared at him, Dex realized he was the main component.
“Hermaphroditus has sent you here,” two people said. They were the same man and woman who had thrown herbs into the bonfire. “We’ve waited for you for so long, and now you have arrived.”
The drumbeat suddenly stopped. As one, the revelers kneeled before Dex.
The young man’s merriment faded into fear and uncertainty.
Firelight flickered off ecstatic faces. “You are the vessel for our great god Hermaphroditus!”
Dex backed away from the circle. “I don’t understand.”
The herb-casting man and woman spoke up once more. “I am called Hermes,” the man said, and the woman, “I am Venus.”
They spoke simultaneously, the baritone and contralto of their voices mingling as one.
“There must be a balance between light and dark, male and female, hedonism and stoicism, war and peace, life and death. Yet the city defies the balance. Every male child is trained to kill. Ur is geared towards a Spartan lifestyle of warfare, conquest and domination. There are no bakers, or tailors, or musicians, or artists, or any non-warriors indigenous to our land. Any skill other than warfare is looked down upon. Every industrial product and enterprise not directly related to warfare is imported from the lands of the conquered.
“Our lord Hermaphroditus tires of the endless wars and atrocities committed by your father, the Pontifex Maximus, and his underlings. We fight neighboring city-states year after year. Our riches come from the plunders of warfare and the suffering of the conquered. The time has come for mass murderers―hiding behind the masks of state-sponsored warfare―to be dealt with.”
“Dealt with?” Dex said. “How?”
“They are human without, but monsters within. We will rip the mask of humanity from their faces and reveal them for the true monsters they are. We are creating a powerful spell… the Plague of Truth. It will course through this city like wild fire, turning its belligerent occupants into the mindless, blood-lusting monsters they truly are.”
“I won’t be a part of it,” Dex said.
“Too late. You chose to come here. You chose your fate. Now you will join us and make our dream manifest.”
“I don’t want to turn my fellow citizens into monsters!”
“That is what they are. Don’t you see? Once they have been transformed, they will turn upon each other and destroy themselves. Only the peaceful will survive, protected here in this cavern as the Plague of Truth sweeps across the city above us. Only then will our city-state be free of its barbarism. The subjugated lands around us will be free of Ur’s tyranny. Nature will rejoice. Mitra’s reign of militant cruelty will be overturned, and Hermaphroditus, the true lord of peace, will turn this barren land into a fertile paradise of pleasure and joy!”
Now the attendees began to chant, and the cavern brightened as the statue of Hermaphroditus glowed with an eerie light. Dex wanted to bolt from the cavern but his leaden feet remained rooted in place.
“You will be the vessel of our god!”
“But it’s hypocrisy!” Dex pleaded. “If you do this, if you complete this spell, you will prove to be just as cruel as those who persecute you!”
No one heeded his words. Instead the chant continued. The glow from the statue increased until Dex was blinded by its light. He was confused now. Perhaps destroying the city would free the surrounding country of its yoke of bondage, yet still, such an act would be barbaric, a terrible holocaust.
The light from Hermaphroditus’ statue beamed across the room and struck Dex, lighting his entire body like a shining star. Only then did Dex recall his father’s words, spoken weeks ago in a murderous rage.
If you ever disgrace our family again, I will kill you with my own hands!
Dex’s reservations melted into acceptance as he felt the spirit of the statue flow into him. He half expected to grow tits and take on the androgynous form of the god that now possessed him. But no, his body remained male. What’s more, he could feel his body morph, not into a hermaphroditic form, but into that of a rugged man, filled with strength and power.
The cavern’s occupants eyed him with wonder as he transformed before their eyes. Then the transformation reached its end. Sibilant words echoed in Dex’s mind. You are my child… and I am well-pleased with you.
Now Venus approached him and wrapped lithe arms around his new, robust body.
“The seeds of the plague are within you. All you must do is walk amongst your fellow citizens. First, visit the houses of the peaceful. Warn them to seek safety.”
“Release the Plague of Truth,” Hermes said, “upon those who have cast their lot with Ur. As you pass each one, they will transform into the true monsters they are. Will you comply?”
Despite the heat of the cavern, goose bumps formed on Dex’s skin, as the truth of his plight hit home. In less than one night Dex—a fledgling of a man—was finally maturing… finally wising-up to the truth. Nevertheless there was much he still did not understand.
He now felt the spirit of Hermaphroditus deep within him and knew there was no turning back. He was the incarnation of a god, Hermaphroditus’ retribution made manifest.
“This ‘Plague of Truth,’ as you call it… how will I release it? More importantly, why should I release it? The city of Ur is a cruel, barbaric place, yet why not try and reason with its inhabitants?”
Melodious laughter echoed in Dex’s mind.
The citizens of Ur are beyond reason, Hermaphroditus said. You must destroy them, one and all. You will commence the Rudra Tandava, the dance of life and death. It is a tantric dance of the darkest kind. The dance will release the plague.
“I’ve never performed such a dance. I don’t know how to do it… I can’t… It’s not possible… I don’t have the skill… or knowledge of such dark magic…”
Dex stuttered on, until Hermaphroditus—tiring of his excuses—silenced him with soothing words meant as comfort:
Fear not, my child. I will teach you the dance. I am your guide, and I will lead you to victory!
Now a force rose from the base of Dex’s spine to the top of his crimson head. A shock of energy coursed up and down his vertebrae, making his taut stomach quiver and his limbs shake.
Dex felt as if his head would explode from the buildup of pleasure. This was not Mitra’s stoic warrior magic. It was tantric magic, based on pleasure, with Hermaphroditus as its source. Exquisite sensations coursed from Dex’s lowest chakra up to his crown. Yet Dex’s shivering was more from fear and apprehension than from pleasure. “Will the entire city be infected?” He said. “Will the plague kill them all?”
Feminine laughter filled Dex’s mind. Why should I tell you with mere words, when I can show you what is to come…”
As Hermaphroditus spoke, the cavern disappeared from Dex’s vision, and the young man fell into a deep trance. Within the trance, Dex saw the violent future planned out for him by a persecuted and vengeful god. What Dex now saw left him in a panic, and to say that he abhorred the vision would have been a gross understatement…
Dex collapsed onto the cavern floor, as silent and still as a dead man.
Venus knelt and placed an ear to his chest. “The young man’s heart still beats,” she said to Hermes. Now she gazed upon Dex’s face and saw that his irises flitted back and forth. “He is in a waking dream.”
“Aye,” Hermes replied. “Hermaphroditus has blessed Dex with a vision, a vision of our glorious future. Let us pray that Dex obeys our god, so that the vision may come to pass.”
Dex was paralyzed by a divine torpor, yet his consciousness remained active. In his mind’s eye, Dex saw himself stand and walk out of the subterranean cavern. He could feel the mineralized rock beneath his feet and smell the effluvium of the cavern’s torches. Every sensation was realistic despite being an illusion.
As the vision continued, Dex saw himself ascend from the subterranean bowels of the cavern. The vision progressed rapidly; every minute spent within the waking dream corresponded to a mere second of real time.
Stepping first from the cavern, and then from the temple, Dex found himself wandering moonlit streets. As he walked Ur’s avenues, his steps took up a rhythm and became something of a dance. Now his body moved in fluid motions. As Dex danced down the cobblestone streets, he performed intricate mudras with strong, stout fingers as deadly mantras fell from his lips.
Growls and shrieks resounded from the houses he passed. Doors were flung wide, and citizens charged into the streets, attacking anyone or anything they ran into. They were the first victims of the Plague of Truth.
In the distance, a group of armed soldiers, just relieved of duty, watched Dex perform the Rudra Tandava. The men drew their swords and approached him.
Deal with them, Hermaphroditus commanded.
With death and destruction. They murder men, rape and kill widows, dash newborn babes against rocks, rip unborn children from the womb. They are a bellicose lot! You will destroy them, one and all!
“I am no killer!”
They prey on the weak, and give no quarter to the fallen. They slaughter without clemency or humanity, and revel in their merciless deeds. As they have done to others so shall it be done unto them.
Dex feared for his life. The soldiers would kill him with ease—running their swords through his body—and laugh as he squealed in terror. Mitra’s well-trained soldiers would stab him again and again until they had sliced through every main artery. Dex would watch his life’s blood flow into the gutter. Then, as a coup de grace, the soldiers would sever his flaming red head from his bloodied body and carry it triumphantly back to Mitra’s temple.
Or would they?
As Dex danced, he instinctively touched thumb to forefinger to form a zero. He raised the circular symbol towards the heavily armed assailants. “Murderous men… inhuman men… you don’t build, you destroy. You don’t build-up, you tear down. As you have done unto others, so let it be done unto you.”
The cursed words took effect, bewitching the soldiers. Immediately, they turned upon each other. Their faces and bodies morphed to monstrous shapes. The men dropped their swords, and with newly-grown fangs and talons ripped each other to shreds.
Dex glided through their midst, as if dancing on air, and passed them unscathed. Now he balanced on one leg, with the other raised and crooked at the knee. Then the raised leg lashed out as he turned full circle, landing on the other leg. Dex froze for a moment, his strapping body pale and motionless as white ice. He opened clenched fingers, revealing naked palms while crossing his arms in the shape of an X. This gesture transformed yet another group of soldiers into mindless, bloodthirsty killers.
Soon, all of Ur would fall victim to the plague…
The entire city was alerted to the commotion spreading from one neighborhood to the next. When the chaos was traced to Dex, Vigiles Urbani―the city’s watchmen―were sent out to restrain him. Yet as they approached him they too succumbed to the plague. Vigiles on the parapets watched in horror as the city below them descended into madness.
Once the gravity and magnitude of the threat was realized, Ur’s elite soldiers were called forth, from third-tier to first-tier, aroused from their beds by trumpet calls from the city’s four corner towers.
A city watchman left his parapet and descended into the fray. He fended off the attacks of bewitched soldiers until he reached Dex. Picking up a handful of earth, he threw it into the air and called upon the four winds.
Wispy clouds in the night sky spun in a circular motion, picking up speed until a vortex of wind descended upon Dex. Within the swirling wind Dex saw the amorphous shapes of Zephyr and his three brothers. They were ghostly and voluminous, and threatened to carry Dex away in their violent, tempestuous arms.
Dex bobbed and weaved as the winds buffeted him. He continued his dance, always keeping one Antaean-like foot rooted to the ground. The twisting winds howled and shrieked, yet the earth god Hermaphroditus kept Dex buoyed to the ground until the whirlwind lost its strength and dissipated into nothingness.
The watchman did not fall victim to the plague. Instead, he fell down dead with blood trickling from his mouth, having performed in desperation an unmastered spell far too powerful for him to cast.
He wasn’t the only one to tempt fate.
With their city under attack, despairing soldiers began casting risky spells they could not safely wield. They all died, either from the onslaught of plague possessed countrymen, or from the destructive force of their own spells gone awry.
On the dance went, and the slaughter continued, as night transitioned into day. Soon the city-state’s formidable brigade was just a shadow of its former self…
By midday, the city’s military leaders changed tactics. Decanus Sanctius sent word to the remaining soldiers to resort to guerilla warfare. Orderly ranks of soldiers broke up into blood brother pairs and lay in wait for Dex as he danced his way closer to the city’s heart.
Soldiers now kept their distance from Dex, thinking they were safe, still not realizing that anyone who neared him or actively attacked him would incur the plague. The soldiers peeked out from behind buildings and barricades, just long enough to throw circular metal chakrams, and then fell victims to madness…
A pair of brash warriors stepped out of hiding from behind a rubbish heap and challenged Dex.
The young, leather-clad men wielded black whips of binding which cracked as they struck him. The whips, thick as pythons, snaked through the air and encircled Dex. He grasped the thick strips of bull leather and tore the weapons to shreds. As he did so, their wielders succumbed to the plague, collapsing to the ground, twin fallen demons of ignorance―apasmara purushas―which Dex crushed under his dancing feet. Now the two men arose in their true form: ghoulish bloodthirsty demons hellbent on mindless destruction.
Yet as Dex lived through this vision of horror, he asked himself once again, was the Plague of Truth worth it? If this vision became manifest, if he became Hermaphroditus’ avatar, would he become a hypocrite, engaging in the same hostile tactics he supposedly despised?
Fight fire with fire! Hermaphroditus said, reading Dex’s thoughts, as the young man tried to break free of the vision. You are no hypocrite! This is the only way to bring an end to Mitra’s bloody reign!
Dex’s legs flexed in yogic positions as the dance took him from the city’s edge to its center, his travels circular and winding as he wended his way, one 360 spiral at a time, closer and closer to the city’s heart and the Temple of Mitra.
After what seemed like an eternity, Dex reached the Temple of Mitra. Overnight he had become the stuff of legend. He fought on an epic level, with the might of a destructive demi-god, and it would take the concerted efforts of an entire army to bring him down.
The fortified doors to the Temple of Mitra were guarded by grim-faced decurions and princeps priors, who denied him entrance. Hundreds of low ranking soldiers gathered behind these powerful leaders, chanting spells in preparation for attack.
The princeps priors raised their weapons to heaven: stormblades and stormhammers. Each weapon could call down one bolt of lightning at a time from the sky, but the frightened officers pushed their limits, not calling single bolts but a massive lightning storm.
Day turned to night. Ominous clouds stacked high as mountains filled the sky and blotted out the sun. Thunder rumbled like the roar of an angry god. Massive bolts of lightning crackled through the air and struck Dex’s body, over and again. Yet the earth absorbed Mitra’s fury, for the electricity that flowed through Dex’s body was diverted harmlessly into the ground.
Some of the stormcasters fell dead from the effort, with blood trickling from their nostrils, ears and mouths. The unlucky ones fell unconscious, only to rise moments later as monsters. As the storm clouds dissipated a decanus appeared on the scene, and looked on in horror as his subordinates attacked each other. He slew the three plague-afflicted princeps with an arching sweep of his battle axe. Then he called up a magical fog, hiding himself and his soldiers in its mists.
They should have known better. Fog could not hide them from a god-possessed man.
Dex navigated the mists, broke through the men’s ranks and with Hermaphroditus’ strength forced open the bolted temple doors.
Inside the temple, soldiers continued to risk their lives, chanting devastating spells that would surely overwhelm them body and soul.
You will strike them down, my champion! Become my avatar, and the glory of this vision will be made manifest!
“No!” Dex screamed, revolted by this horrid vision of civil war and mass atrocity. “I will not kill my fellow countrymen! I would rather die as a peaceable man than live as a murderous thug!”
Images of carnage faded from Dex’s mind, and the musty, acrid scent of the cavern returned. The visions of the future faded and Dex opened his eyes to the present. Limestone walls, shadowed by torchlight, surrounded him.
Dex sat up and stretched his limbs.
Hermes placed a hand on Dex’s shoulder. “What did you see, oracle? What great deeds will you achieve? Will you truly deliver us, and break Mitra’s chains of bondage?”
Dex cringed at Hermes touch. He stood and backed away from the man. Dex almost lost his footing in the semi-darkness of the cavern. Tears fell from his eyes as he sobbed uncontrollably. Finally, Dex found the strength to speak.
“What I saw… was horrible!”
“No, my brother,” Hermes said. “If the vision was from Hermaphroditus, then it must have been glorious!”
Dex disagreed. “Hermaphoditus wants me to annihilate the city! I cannot!”
“Fool!” Hermes said. “Send our oppressors to Sheol! Ascend to the city and release the plague!”
Dex glared at Hermes, Venus and the other denizens of the cavern. “You’re insane! All of you!”
“I’m insane?” Hermes balled his fists in anger. “The city’s inhabitants are insane! They are murderers! Tell me, what happens to the weak, deformed child that is born in Ur?”
“Surely you know,” Dex said. “It is abandoned on a mountaintop to die.”
“And how many daughters and sons are allowed per family?”
“Where are you going with this?”
“You stubbornly defy Hermaphroditus’ will, yet we have not killed you for your noncompliance… at least not yet. In return, I ask that you humor me with an answer.”
Dex sighed. “A family of Ur can have as many sons as they want, the more they have the more exalted they are. Daughters however, are limited… preferably one, two at the most.”’
“These daughter are raised to be bred like livestock, And if a third daughter is born?”
“Should a third daughter be born,” Dex replied, “she is considered an unnecessary burden, and left on a mountaintop to die from exposure.”
“What happens to the elderly? In this military state, most don’t make it to old age, but for those who do…”
“They too are left on a mountaintop, though most choose the quicker route of hemlock.”
Hermes persisted in his interrogation. “And what of peaceful young men, of gentle natures and kind dispositions?”
“They are of no value to our aggressive, militant state,” Dex said. “Therefore, they are expendable, and are cast into the same lot as third-born daughters and the elderly.”
“Don’t you see?” Hermes said, “The city is perverse. It destroys the natural dynamics of life. We need both men and women, young and old, warriors and civilians. We need both the brash and the meek, both the bold and the soft-spoken. A malformed child could never become an elite fighter, yet it might develop a talent in some other discipline. A third-born daughter might have greater potential than her two elder sisters. A senior past his prime might impart valuable wisdom on younger generations. A kindhearted man might excel, not in war and aggression, but in peacemaking and diplomacy.”
Dex knew he was about to die and he laughed at the bitter irony of his fate. He had thought he had finally come home. He had thought he had finally found his own kind. Now he realized how blind he had been. He had always thought that fey citizens were far more humane and morally superior to the hypermasculine overlords who ruled Ur with an iron fist. Yet now he realized the blindfolds of his own intolerance. Truth be told, the fey, the bisexual, the hermaphrodite, the gender neutral, the gender nonconformative—in sum, the enemies of Mitra—could be just as militant and destructive as their oppressors.
Dex pulled himself up to its full height and looked Hermes, and then Venus, squarely in the eye. “I will not kill, now or ever. Death begets death. Hatred begets hatred. Love begets love. Mercy begets mercy. Do what you will with me; I will not comply with your demands!”
“Traitor! Your words are treasonous to our cause and blasphemous to our god!” Hermes spat at Dex’s feet. “Would you rather die?”
Dex sighed. “It is easy to hate and kill… but it takes courage to love and forgive. I forgive you for what you are about to do, and it is my wish that one day the citizens of this nation will learn to live together in peace and harmony.”
Dex steeled himself for his fate. He did not have to wait long. The gana advanced upon him in a rage, saying “Our god has spoken! Your fate has been decided!”
“And what is the verdict?” Dex whispered through trembling lips, though he already knew the answer.
“We will find a new champion,” they shrieked. “With or without you, the plague will commence tonight!”
Dex groaned in dismay, realizing the plague had already begun. He could see its symptoms already manifesting in the cavern’s denizens.
The lithe gana, with faces comely as nymphs, shrieked and tore at their hair. They threw ash upon their flesh. Talons grew from their fingertips, and their beautiful faces contorted in bestial rage.
The gana—with the bloodlust of crazed maenads—attacked Dex and tore him to pieces. Once the butchery was complete, Hermes and Venus threw Dex’s bloody limbs into the bonfire.
Only Dex’s severed head remained. It had rolled into a corner of the limestone cavern. When Venus noticed the head, she retrieved it, grasping it by its red locks, and with a sneer of contempt prepared to toss it into the bonfire. Yet before she could do so the lifeless head spoke:
“Followers of Hermaphroditus: you will destroy Mitra’s soldiers. You will topple his state religion. Your god will have its revenge.”
Venus held Dex’s head high before the assembled crowd. “It is a sacred relic! It foresees our victory!”
A gana placed a laurel wreath reverently upon Dex’s severed head.
Hermes grinned. “The traitor opposed us in life, yet in death he has become a faithful oracle of our god! I am… ow!”
Hermes’ mouth ached. He touched his bloody lip and felt the fang that had just pierced it. His teeth were growing, elongating to monstrous proportions.
Venus recoiled in fear as she watched the handsome man beside her transform into a ghoul. Was this hideous creature Hermes? No. It couldn’t be.
Now Hermes tried to speak once more, but his words were the gibberings of an inhuman creature. Shocked by his inability to speak, he looked to Venus and his eyes widened in alarm. Talons had sprouted from her fingertips, and her canines protruded from her mouth like dragon’s teeth.
Suddenly, Hermes couldn’t think. He couldn’t reason. He couldn’t rationalize. Running on mindless hatred and base instinct, there was only one thing he wanted to do.
Venus dropped Dex’s head and rushed at Hermes with outstreched claws. The two former comrades and lovers clashed in combat like brute beasts devoid of intellect, until Hermes, the stronger and faster of the two, killed Venus with a slash to her throat.
Rage, hatred and resentment—emanating from the statue of Hermaphroditus—spread through the cavern like wildfire. The god, once a youthful and beautiful creature of pleasure, peace and merriment, had devolved, after decades of repression and persecution, into a bitter Queen of Spite. The god now infected its own followers with the plague, not caring that it was destroying its own kind.
As the god’s bloodlust infected every occupant with the plague, Dex’s severed head spoke its last words:
“Revenge and spite come with a price. You will slay Mitra’s soldiers, and Mitra’s soldiers will slay you. Tomorrow, when the sun reaches its zenith, blood brothers will enter this cavern and destroy you, one and all. Most of you will already be dead, for the plague you wished to impart on your foes has already infected you. My brothers and sisters, you have destroyed your own selves. Fight fire with fire, and both you and your enemy will be consumed.”
By now, the cavern’s occupants were beyond reasoning. They reveled in their infection, and eagerly sought to pass it on, not just to the city above, but to each other as well.
A gana picked up Dex’s head and threw it into the bonfire. Flames consumed the head, and on the following day, so too was the city destroyed—like human flesh in a blazing furnace—as each dueling faction, assured of its own righteousness, attacked its foe without reservation, until not one living soul remained in the accursed city of Ur.
Peter Jason Payne creates thought-provoking LGBT literature for queer and heterosexual readers. He holds an Associate of Science in chemical technology and a Bachelor of Science in organizational management. He currently lives in Brevard County, Florida.