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God and Country

God and Country

The Christian right these days is fond of proclaiming that here in America there is a War on Christianity. Isn’t it bizarre how the media likes to portray everything as a war – a War on Drugs, a War on Women, a War on Christmas…can we please just have a War on Media Wars? Anyway that aside, the Christian right is fighting back against what they perceive are assaults on their liberty to worship as they choose by left-leaning progressives and the Obama Administration.

Some of these have taken the form of laws meant to allow merchants or businessmen with certain religious principles (which are meant to be Christian – God help a Muslim who wants to run his business by Sharia law) to not be forced to do things against those principles by law. That’s all well and good, at least on paper, but the practice of it is more insidious.

The brouhaha in Indiana over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on the surface sounds like overreaction; after all, 16 states have laws like it (including my own home state of Florida) and there is a national policy in place as well, signed into law by former President Clinton. However, the way that the RFRA was worded seemed to permit discrimination against LGBT citizens of the Hoosier state. Suddenly there was a ruckus as businesses in Indiana, concerned that they would have trouble attracting LGBT employees, began to complain and threaten to scale back their operations in Indiana as well as outright remove them.

The outcry was so loud and so deafening that governor Mike Pence hurriedly signed into law a revision of the legislation that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT citizens on April 2nd. However, there are similar bills similarly worded being discussed in state legislatures around the country, as well as an onerous bill in California (which to be fair is not going to receive any serious legislative attention) that would require all LGBT citizens to be put to death.

The right has been more successful in pushing through legislation that makes it harder for clinics that offer abortion to be viable. Texas has now fewer than five clinics serving an entire state of millions of women and there are states that are essentially putting restrictions on clinics that make it impossible for them to operate. The religious right is trying – and succeeding – in legislating abortion out of existence. This isn’t because there’s a glaring medical or legal need to do so; it’s because it’s against their religious principles. That brings up the question that our founding fathers wrestled with when framing our constitution; when do the rights of religious practice become more important than the rights of others whose values differ?

The answer that our founding fathers came up with was “never” and for 200 plus years our government has operated on that principle. However, the religious right now feels it necessary to force their values onto the nation as a whole. My values are that a woman’s body is her own and that decisions regarding whether she should carry a child to term is also her own, that workers have a right to organize and negotiate with the management of businesses on their own behalf and that LGBT citizens are entitled to the same rights and protections as straight people. So why are the values of Mike Pence, Rick Perry, Scott Walker and Rick Scott more important than mine?

Well, because people continue to elect them and to elect state legislatures that believe as they do. But do the people get to trample the rights of others just because they believe it is okay to do so, or because their religion tells them that they should? Our constitution says no. Our founding fathers, many of whom were deists and not evangelical Christians, also said no.

The problem I have with the RFRA and the religious right dictating anti-abortion laws is that it emboldens wackos like the guy in Michigan whose auto repair business now gives discounts to open carriers and refuses service to the LGBT community. I don’t live in the area but I would choose not to take my car into his place of business in any case because not only do I not agree with his views, I’m pretty sure that people who do what he has done cannot be trusted to be competent at their jobs. I have a right to believe that way, after all.

But the guy certainly has a right to believe however he chooses. I would never threaten him with anything other than taking my business elsewhere; he claims he is getting death threats (which I find somewhat unlikely; the LGBT activist community has been notably non-violent) which is extreme. Nobody should die because they believe differently than you; that’s ISIS-like.

However, I do call on him to be consistent. If you’re going to deny service to those who the Bible says you should shun, then you need to deny service to those with tattoos; it’s forbidden in the Bible (Leviticus 19:28). Also, he should deny service to divorcees; forbidden (Malachi 2:16, Matthew 19:6). Those convicted of stealing (Exodus 20:15), or adultery (Exodus 20:14); also forbidden. And I’d check your customers breath for ham; that’s forbidden too (Leviticus 11:7-8). Usury is forbidden (Deuteronomy 23:19-20), so that would exclude most in the financial industry. And actually, those who carry guns should probably not get the discount either; after all, the commandment is “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and what other use is there for a gun other than killing? And if you say “It isn’t for killing, it’s a deterrent” than you should be able to carry a replica of a gun that doesn’t actually fire. After all, it’s a deterrent, right? Not something you’re actually going to use to murder somebody?

The point is that it is unlikely that most people who are Christian believe that a pork-eating tattooed divorced bank manager is someone that should be discriminated against. So if that’s the case, if we don’t accept that everything in the Bible is (no pun intended) gospel, then maybe the LGBT and abortion things shouldn’t be either?

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Gold Drives a Man to Dream

Gold Drives a Man to Dream

Another season of Survivor ended recently and next year the show will celebrate 15 years and 30 “seasons” of castaways marooned on a tropical island. Every year Da Queen bitches that they’re never sent to a cold weather environment but every year I remind her that there are no bikinis in cold weather environments nor are their bare-chested men, emaciated as they may be by the end of the season.

This year we watched Tony, the cop from New Jersey, play a skillful game and manipulate nearly every situation to his own advantage. I didn’t particularly like what he was doing but, I kept telling himself, it’s just a game. That is, until he said during the final tribal council whether it was worth disrespecting his father (for breaking an oath Tony took on his father’s grave) for a million dollars. His answer: Yes.

That got me thinking. This is an officer of the law who just admitted on national television that for a million dollars, he would lie. What else would he do for a million dollars? Would he break the law? He had recently saved the life of a man who was having a heart attack (after returning home from the tropics) but what if someone offered him a million dollars not to? Can anyone in his community trust him as a cop again?

My dissatisfaction with the game doesn’t lie with the most recent champion. Survivor is a game in which deceit is rewarded. By any means necessary is not just a phrase in this game; it is a winning formula. Alliances are made and broken; backs are stabbed and friends thrown under the bus. It is, in short, a game in which those without conscience prosper.

The more I thought about it, the more troubled I became. To me, the game has become a microcosm for American culture in the 21st century. The game is the ultimate expression of Darwinism with the fittest surviving however they can, with money being the ultimate reward. When you think about it, isn’t that what our society has become? A greedy, self-centered money-worshipping charnel house in which the good are trampled by the wayside and the strong keep the weak down, using them for their own purposes until they are no longer useful at which time they are cast aside like so much chaff. This is what capitalism has become.

Nobody looks out for the weak in Survivor The moment you are perceived as weak you can rest assured that there is a vote with your name on it. Showing loyalty is weakness. Helping your team out is weakness. Paranoia is your only friend. And this is one of the most popular television shows in history. Is this what we are becoming? Is this what we have already become?

I’m not saying people shouldn’t watch Survivor. I’m not even saying it’s a bad show, or a show that is intrinsically bad. I just wonder if we should admire it the way we do. Often, I watch what people do in the name of going farther in the game and am completely appalled. Would we do those sort of things to get ahead in life? In order to get a promotion at work, would we spread rumors about our competitor for the position that they are thinking of going to another company – another tribe? Would we tell our co-workers that our competitor was talking smack about them behind their backs when they weren’t, just so we become more popular in their eyes?

The producers of Survivor, which include Mark Burnett who has lately been making a number of Biblically inspired programs for cable, aren’t responsible for the way contestants act nor are they responsible for who the jury votes for. All they do is create the situation, set up some challenges here and there, sit back and watch what happens. Host Jeff Probst often refers to the game as a “social experiment” and he’s not far wrong.

That’s why I wonder about our society so much. The show is merely a reflection of what the values of our society are at the moment. In a different era, it is unlikely that people would be quite as ruthless. In previous years, we might have seen more chivalry, more honor. Klingons would be horrified at Survivor. Chances are most of the winners would be killed by the families of the losers within minutes. You don’t mess with a Klingon’s honor.

So what do you think? Do you even watch the show? Do you find it as depressing as I do? Or is it just a game? I admit I could be reading too much into the show – and at the end of the day that’s all it is, an entertainment. The actions that take place on the show are the actions of the individuals who are selected to participate. That surely doesn’t constitute a fair sampling of the population.

Yet it seems that season after season the behavior of the players grows worse and more self-centered than ever. Even on the familial “Blood vs. Water” editions have the same sort of “win at all costs” mentality with family members throwing each other under the bus. So again I’m left to wonder; is it just a game? Or is it who we are?

Tomorrow

Ever since I was a boy and my father introduced me to science fiction in general and Robert A. Heinlein in particular, I’ve been hooked on the future. Futuristic cityscapes with fantastic architecture, amazing mass transit and flying cars (goddamit, where are the flying cars they promised us?!) never fail to catch my attention. Star Trek and Star Wars became my fascination; the fiction of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven, Spider Robinson  and Joe Haldeman  became an escape from the doldrums of my high school years.

I dreamt of travelling to worlds both strange and fascinating aboard starships gleaming and beautiful, reflecting the glow of nebulae from their chrome hulls. I imagined what alien races would look like; would they resemble life on earth – reptilian, insectoid or even humanoid? Or would they look like something completely strange to us, shapes and sizes that even Lovecraft couldn’t imagine?

That continued as a young man and in a large extent right up to today. I still carry an affection for even badly made science fiction movies and get excited for films with even a hint of a sci-fi element to them. Even if it’s just a few years in the future, the advent of new technology is exciting. It is this feeling of a brave new world that has moved my support of the space program.

There are plenty of Proxmire sorts who think that NASA is an enormous boondoggle, a waste of money that can be put to better use solving earthly problems (you want to solve earthly problems? eliminate the freaking tax breaks for the rich – that will contribute far more to the bottom line than eliminating NASA ever would). I find that thinking incredibly short-sighted.

For one thing, the space program of the 60s has contributed so many industries to our economy that you could say that it paid for itself many times over. No, I’m not talking Tang and Velcro. I’m talking personal computers. Yup, computers used to fill entire rooms. NASA had to find a way to fit one in a vehicle not quite the size of a jumpy castle for kids parties. This spurred development in semi-conductors which would lead to new kinds of processors which form the heart of our modern PCs.

The cell phone industry wouldn’t be around without the space program. The satellites that orbit the planet which power the GPS devices that are commonly in use now are almost all launched by NASA. Those satellites were developed in part so that NASA could communicate with the astronauts who were on lunar missions.

Medical research has also benefitted from NASA. The artificial heart pump developed by Dr. Michael deBakey was inspired by the design of the space shuttle fuel pump.  Designs of space suits meant to be used in high heat situations are now being used to help burn victims.

There have been other, subtle benefits of the space program as well. Protocols developed by NASA to protect the astronauts from food poisoning on their long extra-terrestrial voyages are now in use by the FDA, leading to a significant drop in salmonella cases since those safety protocols were put in place. Restoration of 19th century paintings damaged in a church fire as well as an Andy Warhol painting vandalized in a Pittsburgh museum that were not restorable by conventional means were saved using technology developed by NASA to test materials for satellites that might otherwise be gradually eroded by high-atmosphere oxygen molecules that erode materials in spacecraft and satellites.

NASA has also found ways to utilize Teflon in space suits which have now been used in roofing for buildings and stadiums all over the United States. There are also parachutes that have been developed for NASA that are now in use in commercial and private small planes that have been credited with saving more than 200 lives.

But put that aside. As Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson commented on the Real Time with Bill Maher program earlier this year, the space program helped create an atmosphere of innovation that pervaded our culture for more than twenty years after the last Apollo mission. It was an atmosphere that encouraged innovation, of different disciplines working together to solve problems that led both directly and indirectly to new products, new industries and a robust economy.

As the space program has been marginalized over the past few decades once the moon landing was achieved, people have seen it as a relic, a government institution that has outlived its usefulness. After all, what has it accomplished since 1969 other than being a colossal waste of money and time? And in these days of economic stress, is there really a need to send up glorified city buses up to the International Space Station which in itself seems nothing more than a destination for Russian billionaires to live out their Buck Rogers fantasies.

The space program is much more than that. It provides innovation and it provides inspiration. Both are in short supply in our culture these days. I can understand the complaints against NASA. Truly, I can. I realize that there are plenty of things that need attention and funding right here on Earth. NASA is in the tomorrow business. The data that the Curiosity rover transmits today may not bear any fruit for months, years, even decades – but the sky crane that dropped it onto the Martian surface may pay dividends not only for future space exploration but here on earth as well.

There will always be problems on earth. Eradicating hunger, homelessness and hatred are going to take more than a budget and a plan and quite frankly, chances are that we aren’t going to ever eliminate the last of those. You can’t legislate smart and you can’t legislate thought. People will be idiots and bigots and there’s not much you can do to change that. Well, there is – you need to make education a good thing. A desirable thing. You have to put money into the school system and in paying the teachers properly. You need to emphasize science as a means of effecting change and technological improvement. You need to give kids dreams and goals; show them that hard work and tolerance for all cultures, creeds and beliefs is preferable to fear, mistrust and hatred. But that doesn’t seem to be in our DNA these days in terms of educational goals.

But what you can change is tomorrow. You can invest in tomorrow by aiming high now. Is there a reason to go to Mars? Hell yes! There are reasons to create habitations in space. There are reasons to send probes to the planets. It’s not just so eggheads can get work; it’s so that our fundamental understanding of how things work becomes more accurate. What does that do for us? Not just satisfying intellectual curiosity – it helps us understand the things that may threaten our species and how to prepare for them, be they asteroids from deep space or bursts of radiation from the sun that might irradiate the planet and wipe out all life on this very fragile rock. It also helps us discover new ways of looking at things – not the least of which is ourselves and our place in the universe. Is that practical? No. But it IS necessary.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Early on in the history of this blog I got locked into writing something every Friday for this blog. As you may have noticed recently, I haven’t been writing much. Part of my problem is that I’ve had this deadline each week and given how I’m writing every day for my Cinema365 blog, I felt  lot of times that I’m just forcing somethig for the sake of writing and choosing topics just for the sake of filling space.

That’s not fair to you. You deserve the very best I can come up with, regardless of what day of the week it is. So Thank Blog It’s Friday is coming to an end. Not the name of the blog – for continuity’s sake (and because I’m far too lazy to change the logo, the look and the feel of the blog) I’m going to keep the name

The upshot is, be prepared to see material coming out of here at any time without warning.  Maybe even more than once a week. Hopefully the result will be you’ll be seeing more blog entries from me – and better quality work. I haven’t felt enthusiastic about my material on this blog for quite awhile. Hopefully this change will recharge my engines and you’ll see far more from me than just movie reviews.

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 8,400 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Caverns of Safehaven

This is a fantasy novel I have been working on and off for several years. As I have taken a bit of a break from blogging, I thought I might share the first of two prologues with you. I might share more if there is any sort of demand for it.

PROLOGUE I

Then

 

Excerpt from The Hero’s Guild Civic Guidebook 244th Edition, edited by Guild Archivist Master Tivas Kusheri

SAFEHAVEN

Located at the confluence of the Sea of Storms and the River Tranquodius, Safehaven is a major seaport on the Southeastern Coast of the continent known as Kingsland, with trade routes to the continents Dynarus, Emach, Volsove, Finderes, Tomok, Ambrosius, Motar and Shelland, as well as the Eastern Empires, the Island Kingdoms and beyond. Safehaven has existed more or less in its current location for nearly a thousand years. Because of its strategic importance on both land and sea trade routes, nearly every species maintains an embassy here. Even the reclusive Mer are found here in larger numbers than nearly all the other seaports in the Realm. The Mariner’s Guild is a formidable presence in Safehaven, exercising great political power in civic matters. Elected officials of the township, including the Lord Mayor (the office of which is filled as of this writing by the honorable Alexandre de Bont) are almost always affiliated with the Mariner’s Guild in some way. A wise politician in Safehaven will listen when the Mariner’s Guild speaks.

 

As for the Hero’s Guild, we maintain a sizable recruiting and training facility in Safehaven as well as a regional assignments office more suited to much larger municipalities than Safehaven, but as many contracts requiring travel to other continents bring Guild members who cannot by reason of aversion or lack of funds use Portal Magic to transverse these distances, the necessity is there. Finding passage to even the most remote of locations is generally obtainable with minimal difficulty, and the Guildhall in Safehaven has a diverse roster of talents to fulfill any need.

 

Of course, the usual guilds, societies and confraternities maintain presences in Safehaven ranging from small offices to large complexes. As such, Safehaven maintains a population of fifteen to twenty thousand at any given moment. While the town’s economic livelihood revolves around the docks (and the public houses that feed, house and entertain the mostly transient population of sailors and teamsters), there is a large presence of importers, exporters and merchants that keep the economic engine of the transport of cargo running. While some farms surround the town, the Hills of Westmarch (in which Safehaven is nestled) are very dangerous and are a short distance from the safety of the town walls, making farming an occupation that requires a great deal of bravery and skill with arms. Part of the Guild’s contract with the town requires the protection of outlying farms, who supply the town with much of its food supply (although fishing is the main source of food for the town). Guild magic users can find plenty of work weaving protective spells around the various farms and ranches near Safehaven. A number of Imperial Wilderness Outposts, staffed with a minimum of a garrison of men, maintain vigilance in the Hills for larger threats, including the armies of Ur Bathog (which is a perilously short distance away on the other side of the River Tranquodius).

 

Because of its proximity to Ur Bathog (less than 100 miles away) and its strategic location on Realm shipping lines, Safehaven has unfortunately drawn more than its share of attention from Ur Bathog during all three wars. During the Bad Times following the most recent conflict when the Armies of the Underground overwhelmed the Realm and the Spider Queen sat on the Throne of Brightness for a time, Safehaven suffered most grievously under the boot of Ur Bathog. As a result, Safehaven became a hotbed of subversive activity against the Spider Queen, most of which manifested themselves as raids against the Black Fleet of Ur Bathog. The most daring and infamous pirate based in Safehaven during those years was Kerland Rodo, whose ship the Red Wind created a great deal of difficulty for the Queen and her occupying force. Many of the vaunted warships of the Black Fleet, Ur Bathog’s finest sailing ships, went to the bottom of the Sea of Storms courtesy of the courageous crew of the Red Wind. Many magical items coveted by the dark Wizard-Knights of Ur Bathog, the dreaded Plaguebringers, were looted by Rodo and his crew. After years of harassing the Black Fleet, the Spider Queen eventually turned an inordinate amount of attention to Kerland Rodo, who was slowly driven to Hunter’s Point near the border of Ur Bathog itself, where he was engaged in a fierce battle with Admiral Mantis, the Scourge of the Seas. Although the raiders fought bravely, they were terribly outnumbered and the Red Wind was eventually fired and sunk. While a few of his inner circle survived, Rodo himself was never seen again following the battle. It is assumed he was killed during the encounter, or died of his wounds shortly thereafter.

 

                                                *                                   *                                   *

 

            The sun was sinking low in the nearly cloudless sky, a nearly perfect afternoon, neither too hot nor too cold. Summer’s end was approaching, the kiss of autumn was in the air. A good day to die, thought Kerland Rodo with a grim smile. He lay in the bottom of the rowboat, feeling the motion of what had once been the captain’s gig of the vaunted corsair Red Wind as the survivors of his inner circle rowed down the River Tranquodius. His closest friend, Cintas Tolsever of the Woodland Elven, was busy trying to Heal him, but Rodo knew his friend’s efforts would be in vain. No, Kerland Rodo was dying and he knew it, and the thought didn’t distress him quite so much as he thought it might have. For a 39-year-old man, he felt very old and tired but he had been feeling that way the past year, as the Black Fleet with their thrice-damned Plaguebringers had closed in on him. All of his skills and cleverness had been devoted to evading the wrath of the Spider Queen; he had been of little use to the suffering people of the Westmarch. Of course, fighting a hopeless war against the forces of darkness will tire a man out some. The thought brought a slightly ironic grin to his once-handsome face, now pale and blood-streaked.

            His gaze turned to the southwest. The plume of smoke that marked the final resting place of his beloved Red Wind was still visible in the distance, which brought a pain to his heart much sharper than that of any of his wounds. Rodo sighed. All things must end, and he had known all his life that his end would come sooner rather than later. An oracle in the Island Kingdom of B’Landes had foretold it.

            Wearily, Rodo raised his head. “Cintas my friend. Did the circle…” he coughed, spitting up a trickle of blood that Cintas didn’t fail to notice. “Are they here? Where is Quinn Goodreaux? I do not see him.” The elf answered gravely. “Dead. A rock troll stove in his skull as he protected our escape.”

 “And Fortunato? I do not see him either.”

            Cintas’ voice was quiet. “Also slain.” He paused, almost unwilling to say the words that must follow, but he knew his captain had to be informed. “By mortisvag blade.”
            Rodo sank back, letting out a groan, although he had never yet made a sound despite horrific wounds. The sound was part grief for his friend, but part realization that his worst fear had come to pass. “Ahhhh, Gods. Then his soul has gone into the darkness. By nightfall, his corpse will belong to the Spider Queen and the Army of the Underground will come to our very doorstep with the undead Fortunato at its head.” Cintas nodded sadly, his handsome face composed as befitting his Elvish heritage but his eyes showing the great pain in his heart. At least, Rodo thought he saw it. The dying may see things not as they were, but as they wanted them to be. Cintas was as stoic as any of his race, but Rodo knew that the elf was as aware as he what would happen if the Queen were to find what was hidden in the Cavern. If Kerland had the strength, he himself would have been screaming in frustration. So much had been sacrificed and it would all be for naught if the Spider Queen looted his caverns. His lair was a labyrinth filled with traps but eventually she would find it. It was inevitable now. If he could have cried, he would have.

            All at once, what he had to do came to him as if whispered to him by some merciless God. He shuddered and felt his body chill. Cintas, seeing this, threw a blanket on him, misinterpreting the significance of his horror for pain. The pain of his wounds paled besides what he must now endure. He closed his eyes and shuddered. Oh Gods, the burden that he had to bear; this was too much.

            When he spoke again, his voice was barely a harsh whisper. Rodo was finding it more and more difficult to speak. “The Orb must not be taken. We cannot allow it. The Mer…?” Cintas shook his head. “They suffered terrible losses, my Captain. Barely a hundred survive, not much more. They could possibly stand a few moments against the might of Ur Bathog, but no longer. They would be wiped out in a matter of minutes, and the Queen would still possess what she has sought for so long. It may be that we must attempt to destroy the Orb.”

            Rodo opened his eyes then. He seemed strangely peaceful, Cintas thought, but the steel that had made him a formidable captain was still present. The dying man turned his gaze to the elf. “We do not know that we can destroy the Orb, Cintas. We also do not know that in destroying the Orb, we may be achieving the very thing the Spider Queen is after. We must also remember the prophecy. A warrior, the Lost Child, will find it. His son, the Statesman, will protect it and the son of his son, the Great King, will at last use it to banish Darkness forever. We cannot destroy it, Cintas. We must not.”

 “What do you suggest then, Captain Rodo? We can remove it from the Cavern…find a place of safety for it.”

 “No, the damned Plaguebringers would know in an instant that the Orb was vulnerable. Its presence would draw them like a moth to flame.”

            Cintas frowned. “What, then? Fortunato will know the way to safely lead the Queen and her army right to it. He can hand it to them himself. The Hills of Westmarch are much safer for the Orb than the Cavern is.” Cintas didn’t like where this was going and felt an icy hand grip his heart as his Captain whispered “You have the right of it, but nonetheless the Orb must remain in the Cavern.” Rodo coughed up a fresh dribble of blood. “I have a plan, though it is a fell one.”   

            The dying man took in a long, shuddering breath. Even breathing was difficult now; soon enough he would not be breathing at all. “Your people have a ceremony that they perform in times of great need. A spell of protection that ties the spirits of the dead and the living to a single object or place…” Rodo’s body was racked by hacking coughs and more blood and spittle trickled from his lips. Cintas sat back abruptly, his eyes wide with horror as he realized what his friend was asking. “You wish me to perform the Shinia’a Zarus? Gods and trees, Kerland, no! You’d be condemned to an eternity of torture, never knowing rest. You’d be compelled to kill to protect the Orb and with each death your soul would become bleaker, more hollow. At last you’d be worse than a ghost. You would be a mindless, soulless spirit compelled to remain and kill without knowing the reason why, full of pain that cannot know surcease, at least until the Lost Child comes to rightfully claim the Orb and you might just kill him for spite. I cannot sentence you to such horror, Kerland.”

            The dying captain clutched the hand of his friend. “There is no other way. And once the Lost Child comes to claim the Orb, my soul will at last know peace, or at least oblivion.”Cintas tried to speak. Other options would spring into being, but his logical, orderly mind would shoot them down before he could speak them aloud. The sound of the oars dipping into the water and the grunts of the oarsmen underlying it were the only sounds as Kerland lay, his eyes closed, the blood from his wounds pooling in the bottom of the boat.

            Eight men had survived the fury of Ur Bathog at Hunter’s Point, and all of them were in this boat. Besides Cintas and Rodo was Simon Cambridge, a small, lithe man who had, with typical modesty, awarded himself the title of King of Traps. One of the craftiest thieves in the Realm, Simon had devised many of the traps in the Caverns that were meant to protect the men who lived there. Now, those same traps would protect a treasure beyond price, if they held. Simon noticed Cintas’ stare and gave him a weak grin. Well-loved by the women of Safehaven, Simon Cambridge had survived the battle without a scratch. He always seemed to fall on his feet, like the cat that was his animus.

            Kren Forgelighter rowed beside him, his Dwarven frame more than equal to rowing the boat, though it was a task he would scarcely have trained for in the depths of Fire Mountain. Kren was a magnificent warrior and a talented weapons master. The dwarrow had seen more than his fair share of tragedy already, and by the looks of it, would see more this day. Kren was silent, giving complete concentration on the task at hand and yet if a soldier of the Army of Hate had appeared on the shore of the river, no doubt he would have been the first to notice. His flame-red hair and beard were matted with dried blood, some of it his own but most that of those he had fought with such valor on the deck of the Red Wind in the final moments of the battle.

            Andor Morgan manned the tiller, one arm broken and nearly useless. The blonde Clirrican was the war strategist for Rodo, nearly as clever as the captain himself. Much of Rodo’s success was due to Morgan’s meticulous planning and preparation. Morgan’s vanity, however, was a weakness that sometimes infuriated the elf; the two were never close. Morgan had thought himself Rodo’s closest friend, and he was, if you considered only humans. Perhaps Cintas resented Rodo’s friendship with Morgan, as Morgan clearly resented Cintas. However, there was also mutual respect between the two for the other’s talent and ability.

            Rhodes Jamar, helmsman of the Red Wind sat near Morgan. Jamar, a native of Safehaven, had many generations of mariner in his blood. He had what Rodo called “a tracker’s gift” and had the uncanny ability to predict what a ship’s captain that was being chased by the Red Wind would do. Cintas could not recall an occasion that a ship, once in Jamar’s sight, had gotten away. The leather-skinned Jamar was broad-shouldered and splay-legged, but strong with the broadsword, as many dead piled near the Red Wind’s wheel would have attested, had they been alive enough to do so. Jamar was not a handsome man, but his blazing intensity was unforgettable. He turned now to Cintas, a worried expression on his unlovely face. “Cintas, we are near to the Cavern, perhaps five minutes.” Cintas nodded. The elf knew his decision would have to come soon, but how could he decide to damn his closest friend’s eternal soul?

            Near to Jamar sat Reid Sarkasian, Rodo’s bard and wizard. Even now, the rotund human was muttering incantations, hoping to confuse any longboats from the Black Fleet that might be following. So far, he had done a magnificent job. Reid was a man of great passion, but he had never taken a woman to his bed, as far as Cintas knew, which was to many human men the measure of a man. The Elven made their measure on ability and accomplishment, and by that measure, Reid Sarkasian was as great a man as any in the boat. His formidable talents had saved them many times, and he was as devoted to Rodo as any man in the Circle, save one.

            Crouching next to Rodo’s prone body was the last of the survivors. Jupa of the Windward Isles, master of the cudgel, was Rodo’s bodyguard. He was the greatest warrior of the entire crew, a chief among his people. His dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, several ribbons decorating his locks, each one symbolizing a battle he had been victorious in. The side of his head was shaved in the manner of his people, marking him as an important man in his tribe. Elaborate tattoos, depicting his family history, decorated his head, chest and neck. The thick torso of Jupa bespoke his strength, not only of body but of character. Jupa was a simple man, given to simple thoughts. The strategies of war bored him. He preferred to wade in and hack away, but he was disciplined enough to change his style when fighting an enemy of superior numbers, and he had done so with great success. He wore only a leather loincloth. Bonechains dangled from his ears, nipples and around his waist. It was he who had carried Rodo from the burning deck of the doomed ship, although he had been gravely wounded himself. He had refused any Healing, insisting that Reid and Cintas concentrate their energies on Rodo. From the blood that bubbled out of the gash in Jupa’s side with every heavy breath, Cintas reckoned that Jupa would be following his beloved Captain into the Eternal Forest not long after.

            All of them were good men, all legends in their own way, but most important to Cintas, all friends, they were family when you get right down to it. It was Rodo who was the greatest among them, who had fought the tyranny of Ur Bathog and used its riches to feed and clothe the starving and hopeless citizens of the Realm, who were slowly dying under the yoke of the Spider Queen. He had fought the good fight and saved countless lives with his own blood. It was just not fair that he should die this way. And, to consign his soul to eternal suffering for his troubles, never to know the peace of Zindr’anamor, the Forest Everlasting? Cintas found the taste bitter in his mouth, all the more so because he knew his friend was right this one final time. Gods, he deserves better thought Cintas to himself and that was as much prayer as he was capable of giving. The Gods had abandoned the Realm, it seemed.

            “I will do it,” said Cintas in a strangled whisper. Rodo nodded and closed his eyes, seemingly more at peace now. More violent coughing and more blood dribbling from his lips. Cintas knew, as any good healer would, how terrible Rodo’s wounds were. Will alone was keeping their captain alive, it certainly wasn’t his ministrations. Morgan looked back at Rodo worriedly, then looked up at Cintas, his eyes asking the question he could not bring himself to speak aloud. “It will not be long now,” Cintas said quietly. Morgan looked away. The others heard it too. Cintas thought he heard Sarkasian choking back a sob. He dared not look; the emotion in these men were almost more than the elf could bear. Jamar was the one who spoke. “There is the entrance. Pull for the shore, lads.” Nobody in that boat, save Cintas and perhaps Rodo knew an even more terrible truth about the Shinia’a Zarus. For the ceremony to work properly, three others must die as well. Cintas wondered who among them would be willing to lay their lives down with their captain.

            The boat beached on a wide shoreline at the foot of a gently sloping hill. The more able-bodied men picked up Rodo’s litter, Jupa now too weak to handle it alone. They carried him into the hills that had sheltered them for so long. Rodo was glassy-eyed, occasionally grunting when the bearers stumbled. Jupa led the party, cudgel at the ready, staggering at times, a fresh flow of blood erupting from his wounded side. His loincloth was almost black, soaked through with the blood of his wounds, and the blood of the warriors of Ur Bathog, whom he had sent to whatever Hell awaited them.

            As the sun descended to the horizon, the perfect afternoon coming to an end, they came to the entrance of a cave, made nondescript by hanging vines and underbrush. It didn’t look like it could go back more than a few meters, but once inside, a magic word spoken by Sarkasian revealed a passage that went deep into the ground below the Hills of Westmarch. Silently, the men carried their leader into the familiar stronghold they had lived in for nearly twenty years, all knowing that this time, he would not be leaving it.

            They expertly navigated the often confusing labyrinth of passages, past lethal traps set in better times by Simon Cambridge, past rooms filled with fabulous wealth, plunder taken from the treasure galleons of Ur Bathog. At last, they came to what appeared to be a dead end. Quickly, Sarkasian chanted several words of power while making a broad circular waving gesture with both arms. A door came into view, undetectable even by most magical means. The door led into a chamber unadorned and Spartan. Only a pedestal of limestone in the center of the room served as furniture. On the pedestal sat an unremarkable crystal sphere, polished to brilliance, about eight inches in diameter, and wound with silver filigree. From the interior of the crystal, a soft blue-white glow emanated, lighting the room, casting no shadows. Expert magic users, such as Sarkasian and Cintas, could detect the enormous power that the artifact contained. Even those without magical ability could feel that this was no mere glowbulb.

            The bearers set down the litter and stepped back. Rodo was nearly white-faced, eyes closed, breathing ragged. The shadow of death was clearly upon his face. Cintas knew that Rodo couldn’t survive even another hour. He spoke for his friend in a soft, strong voice. “My friends, our captain is near death. The fellowship of the Red Wind is no more.” Jupa groaned and sank to the floor, no longer able to stand. Tears were streaming down Sarkasian’s face, and the others appeared to be on the verge of weeping themselves. All could sense something of enormous importance was about to happen. Cintas didn’t intend to keep them waiting. “Captain Rodo has asked me to perform an ancient rite that we Elven rarely perform. It is called the Shinia’a Zarus which in our tongue means “woeful binding.” It is much more than that.

            “The purpose of the ceremony is to bind the soul of an individual to a place or an object, and install that soul as the protector of that which it is bound to. It is not something we Elven do lightly, for it forever separates that soul from the afterlife, and denies that person a peaceful death. It also, over time, warps that soul in ways that cannot always be predicted, or even imagined, removing as time goes by anything of the light that once dwelled within it. Our captain has asked me to bind his soul to the Orb.

            “There is no other way to protect the Orb. The armies of the Spider Queen will arrive here in hours, the secrets of our Cavern betrayed by the soul that once belonged to Fortunato, stripped from him by the Spider Queen and her cursed mortisvag blade. The Army of the Underground would take the Orb to Ur Bathog and present it to its dark ruler, and she would plunge the Realm into eternal darkness and pain, worse than now, as unimaginable as that sounds. It would mean the destruction of light, justice and peace. It would mean the end of life itself, as she makes herself into the goddess she dreams of becoming. We cannot destroy the Orb, for we do not know what its destruction would do to the Realm. It might end all life in all the worlds and dimensions; it is that powerful. Our world would never have been, and all our lives and those we love, and those we revere would never have occurred. We have one option open to us now, and it is a terrible one.

            “The rite is costly. Kerland Rodo will die in its performance, but his death is certain regardless. The ritual, however, requires three lives to follow him in death, to aid him in his responsibility. They will be specters, not bound to the Orb in the same way; they will be called to it by Rodo when aid is needed, so they will know some peace, but it is a fitful slumber. They will be released to eternal rest when the Orb is safely in the hands of the Lost Child. There will not be enough left of Rodo’s soul when that happens to allow him any sort of rest. I myself cannot be one of the three, since it is I who must perform the ritual. Three of the six of you must decide here and now to die. It will be painless, I can promise you. Time is short, so you must choose quickly.”

            Jupa struggled to his feet, his eyes filled with pain. He could not speak, but he tapped his chest twice. I will go, he gestured. Cintas nodded. “You were a foregone conclusion, warrior of the Isles. Who else?”

            There were looks exchanged among the remaining men, then slowly Reid Sarkasian stepped forward. “I will go. I have nothing left in me, and I am tired. Let other bards sing songs of me!” His lips twisted in a ghastly approximation of the easy, crooked grin that the cheerful, outgoing bard was known for. Rhodes Jamar stepped forward immediately. “My beautiful Red Wind is ashes flying on the breeze to safe harbor among the stars. A helmsman without a ship is of no damn use to anyone. I will join my ship and my shipmates in the Hereafter.” Cintas noted the great sigh of relief breathed in by Morgan.

            Simon Cambridge let loose a long, shuddering sigh and then spoke. “I suppose I should die now as well. That way, the secrets of the traps of our cavern will never fall into the hands of the Queen.” Cintas smiled sadly at the thief. “Simon, my friend, your words do you credit, but we only need three. You shall live, and make your way to our friends in Shile. You know of who I speak. They will help you forget and deny the Queen your knowledge.” The self-styled King of Traps hung his head and nodded quickly; Cintas could see the tears falling from the eyes of the thief.

            The elf then turned to the stout, flame-haired dwarf. “Kren Forgelighter, our people have been enemies since the sun and the moon were new. And I say to you that I have never known a stouter friend or a warrior I’d more wish beside me in combat. You, along among us, have children and family to tend to. Your duty now lies with them. There is no shame in walking past the dark door the others pass through.”

            Kren looked up at the elf, and Cintas was oddly moved to see the tears flowing without shame down the dwarrow’s cheeks. “Cintas, our people have ever known enmity, and at first I was part of this company because we fought a common enemy greater than even one another. I have grown to trust you and have named you grishak, dwarf-friend and welcome in every dwarrow forge. You and yours will always be welcome in the feasting halls of clan Kren.”

            Cintas nodded. He looked at the men who would live and smiled. “Morgan, Kren, Simon, you must leave now and scatter to the winds. The armies of Ur Bathog converge on this place, and the reanimated corpse that was once our comrade Fortunato will lead them to this very room. Take what supplies you need, but be gone in five minutes. I will begin the ritual then. Anyone still in the caves when I begin the rite will be caught in the spell and share the fate of these men.” He touched his fist to his heart, then his index and middle finger to his lips and forehead in the traditional Elven gesture of farewell. “We will not meet again in this life,” he said.

            Wordlessly, Morgan, Kren and Simon left the chamber. Stopping only to retrieve food, water and weapons, all three left the cavern the way they had come in and not a one looked back, each walking in a different direction but none towards the west, where the army would be coming from. None of them would ever return to the Hills of Westmarch again in their lives, nor would any of them meet one another again.

            Inside the chamber, Jupa lay against the base of the pedestal, panting as it became harder for him to breathe. Cintas knew that Jupa was perhaps an hour away from death if left alone, but would in fact die much sooner than that, at the hands of his friend. The thought was unnerving for a moment, then the elf banished it from his mind. He had a ritual to perform.

            Sensing that Morgan, Kren and Simon were beyond the range of the magic that the ceremony would unleash, Cintas turned to the men who were about to die. “My friends, I love you all. Fare well, until we meet in the Forest Eternal. My captain, may the Gods take pity on you.” Rodo was barely breathing, his eyes glassy. The three condemned men sat in a triangle around Rodo’s supine body. Cintas stood outside the triangle, apart from the three whose spirits would be torn from their bodies. He began chanting in a mellifluous contralto words from a language spoken by no living elf. ’Kikiaka’a sinila moso trillcatar…

            The sound of his voice was oddly comforting to the doomed men, and a great peace filled the cavern, as the love these men bore for one another made a statement to the Gods who may or may not have been watching. A strong white light began to shine in the triangle, enveloping all four men, who found themselves falling asleep. Cintas continued chanting, unmindful of the tears that fell like rain from his golden eyes. The ceremony was more beautiful than he thought it would be, and it was much easier than he’d anticipated. It didn’t take long at all for it to be completed. Cintas then left the room, at peace with what he had done, and so left the caverns of his youth for the forests of his homeland, moving quickly through a land ravaged by hate and cruelty, finding some surcease among the green coolness of the woodland. For the rest of his life, he would be hounded by agents of the Spider Queen but they would never defeat him. He would die an elder, revered among his people. Of Kerland Rodo and the shinia’a zarus he would never speak of until the day he died.

            Several hours after the ritual had been complete, the peace and quiet of the empty cavern was shattered by the arrival of the Drow, accompanied by legions of orcs, goblins, hellspawn and other creatures allied with the Spider Queen. They came into the caverns, gibbering with hate and madness, focused on carrying out the will of their heartless ruler. The zombie that had been Fortunato pointed them unerringly to the hidden door of the Orb chamber, and opened it, unleashing the fruits of the shinia’a zarus.

            They say the screams took many days to die.

City of Lights

Earlier this month, I fulfilled something on my bucket list; I went to Paris. With me were my wife, my sister (whose birthday we were celebrating), my niece (her daughter) and my mom. It was one of those trips that had a lot of magic; from the moment we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport I was enthralled.

The architecture of Paris is unique. When you see the buildings there you know you could be in no other city in the world. Paris goes beyond its architecture however. Paris isn’t just a collection of buildings and museums. Paris is a lifestyle and an attitude.

Parisians have an understanding about life. Life is meant to be lived, and lived well. It is meant to go at a pace that allows one to savor it. Lunch breaks in France are 90 minutes long, and paid. Here in the States, they are 30 minutes long and unpaid. That should tell you everything you need to know about the differences between French culture and American.

In case it doesn’t, let’s look at French culture. France didn’t invent culture but they certainly refined it. While there is a perception that there is a haughtiness about the French, that they consider theirs to be the only culture, I don’t think that’s true. There has been an infusion of late of Asian influences in French cuisine and in the culture of France and I find that delightful to be truthful. It puts lie to the rumors that the French are inflexible about their own culture.

I wouldn’t blame them if they were, however. They have a wonderful appreciation of art, of fashion, of cuisine. We Americans tend to look down on those things. Our culture is one built on testosterone; these things aren’t manly by our standards. We look on them as effeminate, wimpy conceits that are the province of matrons and gay men.

That’s bullshit. I don’t think a real man has to justify his likes to anyone; I’m manly enough to admit I love art and cuisine. Fashion isn’t my style – that doesn’t mean that men can’t be interested in it though; there’s nothing un-manly about wanting to look good.

The French love their action pictures as much as anybody. If you don’t believe me, check out anything by Luc Besson or Olivier Megaton (best name for an action director ever). They also adore the sensual, which is also definitely un-American. Our Puritan souls don’t allow for anything that doesn’t  have to do with making money.

But there is more to life than working our asses off and watching football over the weekend. Our souls need more; we need to recognize the good things in life and enjoy them for what they are. That doesn’t necessarily make us sheer hedonists, but I don’t think that ignoring anything that our senses appreciative is particularly healthy either.

In France, people don’t live to work – they work to live. Life shouldn’t revolve around your job – your job should revolve around your life. That’s not an un-American thought; quite the contrary. It is far more civilized than that.