excerpt from, ‘A business affair’ (working title)

Verandah along the former Kowloon British School
Verandah along the former Kowloon British School (Photo credit: Canadian Pacific (away till late Oct))

The tropical weather was sublime and tranquil. Sunlight beckons me, he thought, stepping out onto the Veranda (that was the name for the dining area) for breakfast. He could see the middle aged men whose ranks he was steadily joining and could not help but be unimpressed. No matter how much sun they soaked up, or how much exercise they got, no matter what gaudy watch they wore or what clothes adorned their backs they did not look good. And isn’t looking good all? The pool, the ochre tiles and the decadence of the in pool bar. He thought that was something that went out in the 80s with The Love Boat. Probably when this hotel was built. The hotel has not aged enough to be considered classic or elegant; it looks gaudy and dated. The large sized rooms are a pleasant and welcome change from many of the hotel rooms he had stayed in.

Advertisements

The Reef

Doug Fitzsimons had a headache. It was day one of their stay in Cairns and the tropical heat oozed into the hotel room. Both he and his wife Barbara were sweating. Fitzsimons, a balding chartered accountant, wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt, had worked for Deloitte five years and three months. After working sixty hour weeks and giving his employer his heart and soul, he realised he would never again be promoted. He had hit the glass ceiling. It was this thought, as well as the tropical heat that had brought on the headache and an intellectual torpor that rendered him indifferent to his surroundings.

‘Beautiful sunshine and air-conditioning,’ the loquacious proprietor of the hotel they were staying in had said, “Walking the streets in shorts before diving into the Coral Sea. Just beautiful. Air conditioning running throughout the night to dull the edges of this historically pristine heat. It doesn’t get any better than this.’ Doug had been eager to get to the hotel ‘suite’ to forget the fact he would be back at work soon and that his life was going nowhere.

Tomorrow he and Barbara planned to head out to the reef. Or at least one part of the reef. Doug had always imagined that one could just head out and see the entire Barrier Reef in a single boat outing. He had no idea it consisted of a plethora of living organic matter, which fed on the small fish that swam by and which could only be seen by those actually inside the water.

Today they had planned to explore the shops and take a walk along the beach. He would have preferred to remain in the room to relax, but Barbara insisted. One thing Barbara absolutely loved doing whenever they went on vacation was to stroll through the shopping malls. Though this bored him, he tagged along, trying to remain indifferent while his wife found so many bargains. Whilst it was a tradition with them, today he just didn’t feel like moving.

He had brought his computer with him but the thought of doing any work for the company was loathsome. He had always worked through the holidays but it finally dawned on him how futile this habit was. He had grown stubble over the past week and it was itching like crazy. Rarely had he gone a day without shaving in his adult life. As it was not long before he had to return to work, he would soon need to shave. He grimaced when he recalled he had brought the razors but no shaving cream. Outdoors, there was a mild storm and it was still warm even though there was no hint of sunshine.

‘The fantastic air conditioner the man boasted about must be on low. It doesn’t seem to be doing anything,’ he said. Barbara just nodded without looking in his direction.

‘For such a supposedly sunny state there is such poor natural light,’ he continued as though to provoke a more conventional reply.

‘Poor design,’ he said, stroking his chin.

‘You’d be an expert on that,’ she replied turning on the TV.

His hands were covered in black ink from his shorts which were new and hadn’t been washed yet. He went to wash his hands. ‘I’ll have a shower then head to the beach!’ he yelled, not expecting a reply.

***

 

 

Turning forty had concerned Doug Fitzsimons. The idea of getting older would not have scared him so much were it not so inextricably linked to the fear of obsolescence, the fear that he would somehow be less capable ‒ even incompetent ‒ in his work. He was afraid of diminishing value, declining returns. He could not so readily accept the adage that a man’s best years began in his forties. Fear is a learnt emotion and he had learnt far too much of it. He wondered how long it had been since he had made a choice not driven by fear.

Although he had not been looking forward to the trip exactly, the familiar feelings of anticipation at the prospect of travel had welled up inside him. That was until they arrived at Melbourne airport. In the early morning hours of the morning, his wife bickered with him over his choice to take the cheaper parking option – meaning a longer walk. They drank tasteless coffee from paper cups; the cheap plastic chairs and the indifferent waiters at the airport café confirmed his worst fears about the holiday and had plunged him into the morose mood he was yet to emerge from.

 

He put on a different pair of shorts and stayed in the bedroom deliberating; he had thrown out the idea of going to the beach alone as a challenge, a threat, and now he was unsure of himself. Even the light in the room was dim. Not only was there inadequate natural lighting but the interior electric lighting was so sparse, blanketing the room in a dull shade throughout most of the day, despite the abundance of light outdoors. Discovering she had already left, he made his way to the beach.

A large sign was posted saying that due to the large concentrations of Physalia physalis, or as the locals called them, blue bottles, swimming was prohibited. The last thing he wanted was to be stung by one of those jellyfish-like siphonophores with ten metre tentacles, which were composed of thousands of tiny, sharp barbs. He lay on the still beach and gazed at the horizon. He placed his hat over his face and dreamt he was being held fast by the arms of a siphonophore, unable to breathe or swim away. He woke, startled, and headed back to the hotel.

She was still at the shops. Doug looked at himself in the mirror. His stomach had ballooned out, even though his arms and legs remained thin. He remembered the pride he had felt when hair had first appeared on his chest and abdomen. Now the scraggly mess of hair on the bulging stomach depressed him. He was almost completely bald on top and wore his hair short. The ceiling fan circled languidly. When he turned it to level 3 though it was faster than an aeroplane propeller. The bed, like most hotel beds was unaccountably neat. He was too hot and the signs of another headache were emerging.

He took the last beer from the fridge and moved to the balcony where the heat was stifling and he could already see the mosquitoes gathering. A thunderstorm began. ‘It would be a shame to stay indoors tonight,’ he thought. ‘We should get out somewhere.’ Suddenly he felt like getting drunk. There was no restaurant at the hotel they were staying at, which was slightly more upmarket than a motel. Their accommodation amounted to a small self-contained unit with a kitchenette. He was beginning to get bitten by the mosquitoes so he came indoors again.

That night they went for dinner in an Italian restaurant. Food was something Doug had always felt uncomfortable with or at most, ambivalent about. He attacked his food as though the aim was to finish as quickly as possible, rather than to savour each mouthful. It irritated him that his wife Barbara ate slowly, decadently, almost playfully, her pale skin and black hair out of place in a town where so many were tanned and blonde. Doug began to pick at his main meal, a rack of lamb in a slimy pomegranate and red wine sauce, taking sips of beer intermittently.

Barbara looked bored. He couldn’t remember the last time she hadn’t looked bored in his presence. This had fostered his own indifference and it had got the point where he no longer attempted to revive the feelings he once felt for her.

He had spent the past two months working on the company’s forward financial plan ‒ and this was where he realised he would never be promoted. He would be stuck in this role the company found for him, where they were happy seeing him slave away without reward. They had both looked forward to this holiday as a chance to refresh, a last chance to get away. The talk had even turned to having children, something that they considered from time to time before retiring to their own worlds of indifference.

A man in a tight fitting black shirt and pastel trousers walked in to the restaurant. He was accompanied by his wife, a wafer thin blonde woman. They were staying in the same hotel as Doug and Barbara and, earlier that day, the two couples had struck up one of those insipid conversations one gets into on holidays, where everyone pretends to be happier and friendlier than they actually are. Alan Moorcroft was a solidly build, thick-set man with an impossible tan and a raft of wavy hair. His wife Deidre was extremely pale with a vacant expression affixed to her features.

As dinner was almost over, Barbara invited them over for a few drinks.

Barbara had come from a Catholic family. She had always maintained a straight course so on occasions like this where she could have a few drinks and ‘live a little’ she really enjoyed herself. Doug noted her eyes had barely strayed from Alan, whose open collar black shirt, intense, childlike eyes and so obvious platitudes were odious. Her laughter, something he was unaccustomed to hearing of late, became shrill and childlike as the evening wore on.

Barbara was enjoying herself no end. Perhaps because this man’s words smacked of desperation, and his manner so uncultivated, it was somehow irresistible. She had married a man whose libido was so insipid that his eyes never strayed from her. Doug Fitzsimons ordered another meal. As his wife talked more and more pleasantly with Alan Moorcroft, whose blonde, wavy hair had become a source of insatiable irritation for him, he continued to stuff morsels of food into his mouth. They finished dinner. Barbara was quite drunk and chirpy as they said their goodbyes and went back to the hotel.

As they went to bed later that evening Doug asked her. ‘Do you still want to have a child?’

‘Very much so,’ she said.

He began to kiss her hoping to erase the unpleasant mood that had settled on him. In days gone by, making love to her had always revived her interest in him. But recently he had lost this certainty.

‘Baby it’s late,’ she said. ‘Let’s sleep.’ He was not a man to demand sex or to even require it all that often. He turned onto his back and stated at the ceiling. It was a long time before he fell asleep.

They headed out to The Great Barrier Reef that morning. Barbara had invited the Moorcrofts and ever since Doug had voiced his objections, she had been fractious, finding fault with him.

Doug continued to drink his coffee. Even though it was a cooler day than yesterday, it was still stifling and he wished his body would sweat more so that he could cool down for a minute. Thoughts of the previous evening came back. They stayed late at the hotel all of them quite drunk. Barbara was laughing the whole time and talking to that sleazy Alan Moorcroft. Mrs Moorcroft the thin blonde was dull as dishwater. ‘I’m going to kill that bastard’ he thought as he drank his coffee in a poky store on the marina.

There was a dull monotonous thudding in Doug’s head, and he wondered how waterproof his phone was and the wisdom of taking his iPhone on an outing to the reef. He was smeared in sticky sunscreen, laden with bags and probably wearing too much clothing. Laden with his own prejudices, carrying too much baggage altogether. Was that something he had always done; taken too much with him on day trips, taking too much baggage through every episode of his life? Would he ever be free of it? The sun beamed down magnificently.

The boat was due to leave at ten. There were clouds there was the sound of thunder and the threat of rain but it was very damned hot and he wished he could stay in the hotel with the air-conditioning running watching reruns of I Dream of Jeannie. In fact he wished he could go back to his childhood.

They got to the marina and sure enough there was Alan and his paper-thin wife, with a vapid air, as though her husband had fed on whatever reserves of vitality she had once possessed. Alan wore his pastel shaded polo shirt, the symbol of the well-fed middle class, with the aura of one who was not trying too hard. Doug always owned the correct shirts: the Ralph Lauren polos, the Hugo Boss suits but wore his clothes as a necessity; it was an ‘image’ he had to strive to accomplish, whereas Alan in his simplicity seemed to just carry it with him.

Alan sauntered out of the toilets wiping his hands on his shorts. The lack of self-consciousness in brutes like this incensed Doug.

The boat lurched forward in a jittery fashion from the marina. As they headed out drops of rain fell.

‘Why don’t you and me do the scuba diving, Doug?’ asked Alan, ‘I think the women will be happy to sit on the boat,’ he added with an ingratiating smile.

‘Sure,’ said Doug. It was at that moment he decided he would kill Alan. The thought had actually flashed briefly through his mind in the shower that morning, causing a primal thrill of sexual arousal, at the thought of vanquishing a foe, at the pure joy of killing, but he had dismissed it as a flight of fancy. Now it was decided.

They got to the reef. Barbara and Alan had been laughing uproariously the whole way, while Alan’s wife never removed the veil of indifference that allowed no hint of colour to brighten up her monotone existence. Doug looked out to sea and thought that all happiness was gone from the world.

The tour guide gave a briefing on snorkelling and the various options available to the wayfarers. Surrounded by many people in shorts, thongs and those cheap hats Doug would be ashamed to wear, he felt a little queasy. The wind buffeted his face, the sun burned him through the sunscreen; to his left were hills and mountains covered in tropical vegetation. Cumulus clouds hovered above them in the shape of two enormous and ominous peaks, partly gilded on one side but predominantly a pale grey in colour. To the right of the boat miles of ocean. Doug started to feel dizzy from the rocking of the boat, the stifling atmosphere of the upper room where the DVD presentation was playing.

Alan and Doug purchased their scuba diving tickets. Alan paid little attention to the safety briefing, chortling at how ‘chicken-shit’ their wives were for staying on the boat.

When he plunged into the tropical waters of the Reef, Doug was overcome by the sensual pleasure of the warm waters; skimming through the alien environment, using the swimming strokes learnt under such duress as a child was invigorating and joyful. Transcendent and temporal joy lifted his heart. He was surrounded by the lunar coral which looked like cauliflower and swam so close to beautiful parrot and rainbow fish, which he could reach out to but never quite touch. To float on the surface to use the flippers to move speedily through the sea and to gaze down hundreds of meters to the sea floor. He even saw a reef shark, a baby, moving in stately majesty, the future king of the ocean.

 

They made their way to an isolated spot on the reef where Alan was intently observing an anemone he motioned Doug across and then pointed towards a shoal of bluefin.

It was then Doug noticed the numerous iridescent formations Physalia physalis, which he recognised from photographs and now looked shocking up close. Alan had refused to wear the prescribed latex wetsuit. Mate, I don’t need that getup! he had said. Doug looked around. Seeing that all the other divers had remained close to the flotilla, he motioned Alan to go down deeper. The blue bottles attached themselves to both men Alan looked perturbed but unruffled. Then the stinging began. Whilst Doug was unscathed, Alan was writhing in pain. Taking another look around and seeing no one, Doug removed the cable that ran from the scuba unit to Alan’s mask. He noticed the bewildered look but without hesitation held the cable in one hand and the man with another arm. He was surprised by his own strength and Alan, who was not a fit man but who was of a solid size struggled and was unable to free himself. Doug pulled him down further. When the man stopped struggling he went back to the boat as quickly as possible.

‘I’ve lost my friend,’ he told the instructor, in between sharp breaths. We were exploring the outer part of the reef and we got separated.’

‘Lost?’ asked the man incredulously, ‘Right, point out where you last saw him, we will search for him.’

They scoured the area were they had been diving and found no trace of him. Doug was shocked to discover that even when returning to where he thought he left the man there was nothing to be found. No corpse to uncover. He was shivering uncontrollably when he got back on the boat. The search party couldn’t find the man and called in the coast guard to aid in the search. The policemen on board disinterestedly questioned Doug.

‘He swam away from me and I couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t find him and got scared…and then I returned to the boat.’ Lying became easy when it was a matter of self-preservation.

Eventually they headed back to port, his hat flopping over his eyes in the breeze. The feeling of the sun on his skin was delicious, reminding him of his just fled youth. His wife was indoors with Alan’s wife; neither wanted to speak to him so he was on deck. The venerable Europeans in front of him had removed their shirts and, despite his mood of numb fear, he was impressed by the casual display of flabby flesh, the lack of abandon shown, the defiance to the prevailing fear campaign against any sort of sun exposure. Perhaps they hadn’t even heard of skin cancer. The seas were perfectly clam. The breeze on his face was more due to the forward movement of the boat than any geological factors.

No matter how much the sun burnt him, his athletic shorts remained damp, and his tortured mind, experiencing that sensation that views temporal pains as perpetual, caused him to fear he would never again feel warmth. The spirited voices of Asian tourists behind him jarred on his discordant nerves. He never realised how irritating it could be to hear the vibrant sound of enthusiastic speech in a language not one’s own.

That evening he sat in the hotel room the fan running overhead. Barbara was next door smoking while he was isolated in the bedroom. Alan Moorcroft was reported missing and another man had died at the reef that day, a forty year old man well known and loved in the community.

News reports called for stricter regulations on tour boats. A member of the state parliament pledged to draft legislation to make it tougher to get a licence to operate tours of the Reef. The community were outraged and considered the whole matter a scandal. One eccentric environmentalist, who rarely shaved and whose straggly white hair gave him the air of a man stranded on an island for years, even called for the Barrier Reef to be cordoned off and that no tourism be allowed there, but no one took him seriously. Soon enough life went back to normal, as it always does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Elemenium Fang

A World of Warcraft Tale 

For the first time in months Kleon was tired. He put his axe down, and from his rucksack hungrily tore out the packet containing mutton. He wolfed down the food, while sitting on a log nearby. He was unconcerned about anyone or anything round him knowing his great sword was slung over his shoulders… he knew that to sit down anywhere was extremely hazardous. For years he had been vigilant, alert, unwilling to rest. If for a moment he paused, he looked around warily in all directions, his heightened state of alertness not allowing him to relax even for an instant. Now as the fatigue set in, his fears were displaced by weariness, his concern for survival dispersed by an air of unconcern. For so long his only concerns had been revenge and survival. As he sat in utter fatigue, chewing so quickly into the dried salty meat he could barely breathe, he relinquished all desire other than to rest. It now seemed – once the rage had dispersed so pointless. This ceaseless violence, this perpetual killing and the never-ending search for more armor weakened his soul, which once delighted in simple farm labor, nights listening to the strains of a lute and drinking wine made from homegrown grapes. The ravages of battle were evident on his features. He finished eating and quaffed a flagon of dwarfish wine he had taken from the corpse of a death slayer.

Before long his mood was revived and the emptiness and extreme tiredness dissipated. He jumped back into his feet and the blood once again coursed through his veins, his need to seek more adventures overwhelming him.

The dull dark sullen day was overcast as the grey clouds raged over the sedge. Kleon walked over the battlements towards the castle, his grey locks tied behind him, the gleaming tabard resplendent beneath his shiny plated armor.  He walked nobly, his bearing reminiscent of the most ancient warriors, the noblest of their race. 

There were desires in his heart that nothing could fill; his search for the ultimate weapon of destruction, led him to range far and wide across the lands of Azeroth from Kalimdor to the barren wastes of the frozen lands. 

He had moved from battlefront to battlefront, acting at times a mercenary, at times part of the Alliance wars.  At other times he had delved into the bowels of the earth with a group of steely warriors, places such as Black Fathoms caverns where he would immerse his blade into the flesh of scaled amphibious demons.  

During each campaign he amassed wealth and his appetite for blood seemed to grow rather than diminish. It had been so long since he had returned to the village of his boyhood, the place he had played in as a boy, where he had met his wife, and where the ravenous Orcs had…

Instead of returning to his homeland, he bought weapons and armor. Whilst at first war had been a means of survival, it had now become a compulsion. The poison of death seeped through his veins. The need to live by destroying became all powerful.

‘It’s too cold’ he thought ‘always cold’. Even the climate in the Eastern Lands had changed since the invasion.

Kleon had grown up near Stormwind in a small village near the Elwynn forest.  He had lived with his parents, who were local farmers and, from the time of his youth, had helped out on their modest farm. He had married Maryanne, a buxom, blonde-haired maiden, whose love for him was steadfast like the summer rains. Then the war began. When the Burning Legion stormed the castle at Stormwind, young men from far flung regions of the Eastern Lands were called to battle. Kleon had made his way to Stormwind with the only weapon he possessed, a simple but deadly wooden mallet. As he fought bravely – though with a lack of finesse or skill – alongside the far more advanced Stormwind infantry, he was able to pilfer copper pieces from his victims, the trained wolves and orc spies, money which was used to purchase swords and axes. The more he fought, the more his proficiency improved, as did his weaponry. For several weeks he was in the thick of this raging battle when, unbeknownst to him, his own village was annihilated by the High Priestess Azil and her Horde minions. He returned to his village as promptly as he could, only to discover his parents had been dismembered – hacked to pieces by insidious demons – and his beautiful wife, whose cheeks were still flush with maiden glory was no more…

A few isolated rays of sunlight cast their glow reluctantly over Kleon, startling his once delicate sensibilities. No longer content with the world around him, he seemed to be in a constant state of unease. Displeased with his fate and with the viciousness of all creation, the absence of his once customary tranquility distressed him. ‘As children, we hope we will do so many things,’ he thought, ‘So many things. Then, life is over, and we discover in ourselves frailty, disease disunity and death. The dreams we cherish of a better life disperse as though they were incorporeal as though mere inconsequential shadows.’

But fighting had almost made him forget; an exorcism against the dark spirits of those around him and the negative consequences of their lives towards his.

His muscles were developed so that every sinew and fiber was taut and hard as flint; the strength had developed through constant battle over five years, running in heavy armor, swinging powerful weapons and destroying many foes. It had been years since he has been revived by a healer, such was his prowess, his agility and the determination to slay the members of the Burning Legion, whose attacks on the Alliance had only grown in intensity and ferocity since that fateful day when his wife, the downy-cheeked flowing-locks maiden, was dispatched and lay dying in his arms.

As he reflected on that day, the image of which was indelibly etched in his fevered brain, he moved to the gryphon stall at Stormwind. Paying the quartermaster the fare, he jumped onboard the huge beast, its talons gleaming like golden sickles, its ever sharp eyes like piercing coals, he gripped tight and adapted the forward posture required when riding one of these beasts, which sliced effortlessly through the air and whose grace of movement was so sublime so they had been given the moniker ‘angels of the air’.

He had heard that heroes were required at Strangle Cove near where archaeological and metallurgical discoveries where being made frequently by the Explorers League.  Nowadays, like many others since the outbreak of the war, he had no profession other than soldier. Kleon was a paladin, which meant he was not quite as strong as or well-equipped as a warrior, nor was he as adept in the lore of battle, but he knew the dual arts of healing and fighting; the light of retribution and the aura of holy light were both strong upon him.  He could use many a powerful spell to heal or inflict damage. Since the 3rd epoch, with the unleashing of the powers of the Horde, the beasts of the native Eastern lands had gone to seed. They were imbued with demonic power that the orcs derived from mineral deposits in the earth, which the goblin Kobold miners extracted for them. Warriors, when not fighting wars were often engaged in killing these beasts.  

Thus when Kleon arrived in Strangle Cove, it was a leather merchant who first approached him.

‘Yer a fine strappin’ lad,’ she said, in a quaint though familiar accent. ‘O, people say I’m straight forward,’ she continued, ‘I don’t stand on ceremony at all.’ She was a diminutive lass with fiery red hair, and she burst into a little chuckle after speaking these words of introduction.

Kleon remained silent, still recovering his equilibrium from the flight. His expression conveyed stoic indifference to everything around him, though his eyes revealed his keen intelligence and a sparkling alertness.

‘I see you’re the strong silent type,’ she said, ‘you must be Kleon from Stormwind. We heard you would be here.’

‘I’ve orders to meet Marshall Liongate.’

‘Well before you do that, and I’ll be only too happy to introduce ye to him, let me bend your ear a little. You see, I’m always looking for leather for my fine garments.’

All of a sudden a stocky man with a stern visage and immaculate gold armor walked past. He was deeply in concern and was followed by two attendants who he was talking to intently.

‘There’s your man,’ said the little tanner.

‘Is that Liongate?’

‘Sure is,’ she said. ‘I guess ye’ll not be too interested in what I have to say to ye now’

‘What is it you wish of me?’

‘Well in my line of work, we make fine leather armor which is useful for a hunter or a rogue, and even a paladin like yourself, though I suppose you’ll be wanting plate armor soon given that that is all the rage with you paladins!’

 ‘Anyway we must get the hides from somewhere and there are no better hides than those on the forest wolves just north of Strangle Cove. I’d be mighty glad if you could lend a hand and kill five to twenty of them and bring me back the hides. What do y’say comrade?’

‘Let me speak to Liongate first and if I return alive from the mission he has in store for me, I promise I will return and slay your wolves for you.’

‘You better keep to your word. I’ll be looking out for you. Go with honor friend, as they say!’

He excused himself from the diminutive tanner, who gazed longingly after him, noting the confident, purposeful manner of his walk and the way his now worn armor hung on his powerful physique.

‘Captain Liongate!’ he yelled.

‘And who may you be?’ said the captain, turning away from his attendants momentarily.

‘Kleon reporting for duty. I was told you required help to fend off the local orc population.’

‘Kleon, ah yes, the paladin. Well met squire. Anyway the orcs…well if that was the only problem, we’d by fine. When I sent out the communiqué the orcs were loitering around here near the temple of Artemis. We have been able to restrain them and even destroy some of the insidious Water Elementals in league with them. Sadly though a much more pressing matter has arisen. We must make haste. Paladin will you go where I send you?’

‘Yes I will sir.’

‘That’s good. Well then, have you heard of the Stonecore?’

‘I’ve heard legends of it. I hear it is inaccessible, it lies deep in the bosom of the earth and it is where High Priestess Azil resides.’ Even in pronouncing her name Kleon’s longing for revenge, long suppressed, rose to the surface of his thoughts.

‘Not quite inaccessible. There are ways and means…anyway, we are gathering force to ender the dungeons of Stonecore. We need five intrepid journeymen to take this cavern, to destroy Corborus, the mysterious gyre-worm, then take down Ozruk the Core’s guardian and yes, to destroy – if at all possible – Azil herself. But there is much to face before any of you will get near her. Have you any skills in healing?’

‘Yes.’

‘And I see you are trained in the paladin arts of battle?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good. There is one thing you need…Your armor…its–’

‘–in need of repair?’

‘More than that. You’ll need something more than that to defeat Azil and her minions. Get on the griffin you came in on and return immediately to Stormwind. Take this letter to the quartermaster in Old Town. It is signed by me and will give you credit of 2000 gold pieces. You are to ask for Field Marshal Legrandin’s Aegis, a magical set of gold plate armor, which will dispel powerful magic and protect you from the fiercest blows the enemy can rain down upon you. The full set will almost double your protective capability and it may just be the one thing that stands in between life and death – except for your prowess with the sword, which I hear is almost unparalleled among paladins.’

***

 The great paladin trainer of Stormwind, none other than Lord Grayson Shadowbreaker, who had bestowed magic powers on countless paladins over the past decades, had been impressed by Kleon’s mettle. He had blessed him upon hearing of the mission to enter Stonecore. As he placed the Aegis on Kleon’s shoulders he reminded him of just how difficult this task would be

‘It is a fearful place, Kleon. Populated with the undead, with an insanely crafty gyre-worm, lizard like creatures under the oversight of Slabhide, their bloodthirsty leader, and at the end – if you should make it, you will have the opportunity to exact your revenge upon the high priestess Azil, whose curse of blood and force grip magic are enough to dismember even the most powerful foes.’

  It was a desperate and dangerous mission that would require him to work with a group of Alliance soldiers gathered from disparate parts of the ester lands and Kalimdor.

‘May the Almighty bless you and may you fight with honor Kleon’

Lord Shadowbreaker ushered Kleon through the portal that took him to the gates of the Stonecore. Making his way forward in the dark, the first of his companions he found was a bruising warrior, who introduced himself with a grunt and a shrug of the shoulders as Japheth; he was towering over Kleon at seven foot – an immense man, with a permanent scowl affixed to his face. There was a priest journeying with them, Pleides, whose spells would be invaluable in healing them. There was also a Warg, a wolf-like creature that had been trained by the Alliance and could fight sight by side with elves and men yet whose savagery in battle ensured that even the most imposing of foes could be leveled when his claws and fangs and the magic that gave him preternatural power were brought to bear on an opponent. Though Kleon had heard of such creatures , he had never met one in person, so understandably, he was a bit unsure of what to say to this mysterious and imposing being and, hence, kept his distance.  

Lastly, slouching insouciantly in the corner, was another paladin, a man by the name of Orestes, who was famous across the lands of Azeroth. He was a fine-featured young man but his eye betrayed a hint of conceit and contempt for those around him.  Orestes had come from the Northern part of Kalimdor, and his exploits in slaying orcs was excelled only by his reputation as a rake and a lover of gold. He was renowned for his cache of weapons and frequently undertook the most dangerous missions on behalf of Stormwind for the sake of spoils. His armor was resplendent and was even superior to that which Kleon had just managed to buy at considerable expense. It was plate armor wrought by Twilight’s Hammer and as such was not only exceedingly rare but was proof against many powerful spells.

‘You know paladin,’ said Orestes, exuding confidence to the point of arrogance, ‘if we defeat this monster and if you get out alive, there is almighty sword hidden in this dungeon.’

‘The Elementium Fang,’ replied Kleon matter-of-factly.

‘You know your treasures then,’ he replied with a supercilious smile.

‘I’ve heard of it, but I am not here for that.’

‘All for the cause then, a loyal soldier, ha! Let me tell you, all that matters is the money! Killing for more gold, better weapons.’

‘I fight for Stormwind, and my honor,’ said Kleon defiantly.

‘Sooner or later, all that will matter is the gold you have plundered. You’re a fool to think you still believe in honor. Anyway, Japheth has given the signal. It is time to proceed. Just stay out of my way. If you survive until we meet the High Priestess, which is unlikely, don’t get any ideas about the Elementium Fang!’ With a loud sinister chuckle, he ran forward behind Japheth, with the agility of gymnast.

They moved forward through the darkness making their way further downstairs over uneven, rocky ground. Kleon found it difficult to move in the unfamiliar new armor (the ‘borrowed robes’, so to speak) but had to move swiftly to maintain the pace.

He had heard spoken the prophecy many years ago by Zarathustra, the venerable sage, ‘out of you, who have chosen yourselves, there shall grow a chosen people – and out of them, the overman. Verily the earth shall yet become a site of recovery.’ Kleon considered that the terror that had engulfed the land had destroyed the souls of many good men. Could he too succumb to the lust for gold as this conceited fop Orestes had? Surely there was another way. He recalled another prophecy: ‘Celebrate the way to the evening; it is the way to the new morning’

Yes, all this will be over one day, then we will have a new morning, thought Kleon, and this thought encouraged him, quelling the fear that had arisen in his heart.

They made their way to a steep incline. Below them were raging fires, and creatures moving about working on forges that produced elementium, the evil metal used to apply plates to the dragon aspect Deathwing’s body.

‘This is it!’ yelled Japheth! and he rushed maddeningly in the midst of the bodies, flailing his arms left to right, causing blood to flow, destroying life in all directions. They made their way forward through a swathe of green-bodied creatures, towards a giant door. Between them they killed over 30 of the engineers and made their way into a large ornate room with chrysolite vault ceilings. It was here that Slabhide, a lizard-like man, of over 40 feet in height and Ozruk, a giant skeleton with the features of a demented turtle, the guardian of  Stonecore, were to be found, directing the evil, clandestine engineering operations of the subterranean world. 

After the priest had poured forth healing magic upon Japheth, whose heaving chest and menacing eye suggested a lust for killing, the warrior once again rushed forward in the midst of Slabhide’s lizard men, plunging his steel into their vile blue blood. Kleon rushed forward and using his holy powers went stroke for stroke, killing these creatures with sword strokes, holy power and Judgment, a magical power that produced a bolt of energy to fall from the sky and smite an opponent.

Then Slabhide came forward himself, an immense specter with seemingly impregnable armor, shouting threats, sweeping his fearsome arms before him and lashing the party with firebrands from his tongue. Orestes was the first to step into the fray and slashed vigorously with his sword, creating huge amounts of damage with each stroke. So strong was the foe, however, that this did little to slow him down and in return he pummeled Orestes, battering this superior warrior as though he were a child. He was flung back against the wall and required the services of the healer. In the meantime, Japheth stepped forward and unleashed his might. Such was his power that he could possibly have taken Slabhide down on his own but with the help of Kleon and the warg, who was scratching and biting the beleaguered Lizard man they were able to fatally wound and then destroy this ageing behemoth.

As they moved forward, the room led into another immense golden chamber where Ozruk was seated on his throne. He charged at them and knocked Japheth to the ground, mauled him, rendering the mighty warrior senseless, whereupon he turned his attention to Kleon, who was flung like a ragdoll to the far reaches of the immense chamber.

Suddenly Orestes charged forward and with a bolt of judgment knocked the massive turtle-like creature backwards. The powerful armor of Orestes was proof not only against the blows of Ozruk but against the spells that were hurled repeatedly against him. Despite being turned into a block of ice and shackled by chains created by elemental forces, he pressed forward, his armor glowing and his blade lashing out skillfully. Kleon, seeing this impressive advance shouted,

‘I will go to the rear!’ and he rushed Ozruk from behind, striking him with his axe while Orestes did immense damage from the font. Meanwhile the priest, Pleides had healed Japheth, who along with the warg jumped back into the fray. As Kleon released his spell, exorcism, one of the most potent spells in a paladin’s arsenal, Orestes lunged forward with the Hammer of the War, a move known to superior paladins, which felled the beast in a blaze of white holy light. The chamber echoed with the creature’s pitiful screams as it fell face down in a pool of its own blood, never to have dominion again over the sons of men.

‘Not a bad effort Kleon,’ said Orestes while sheathing the blade. ‘We might make a paladin of you yet!’

Kleon ignored him and looked to Japheth who had motioned the way forward with a grunt and a curt hand signal.

They moved silently – a silently as knights in clanking, bloodstained armor can move – though two giant wooden doors.

‘No heroics here. This one’s gunna be hard,’ said Japheth coldly.

They entered a cavernous space from which could be seen a winding rocky staircase, leading down to a dark ruinous plateau, in the centre of which was a raised platform constructed of illuminated marble. Lying in the centre was strange looking creature, the like of which Kleon had never seen.

‘That is Carborus, the gyre-worm said Pleides. He was created by mistake from elementium, in a failed experiment for the burning legion. His powers are almost unparalleled and he guards the access to the High Priestess night and day.’  

Before they could proceed further, Corborus, who had sensed the presence of the intruders had launched a crystal barrage, flinging particles of crystal which knocked over each of the party members. The priest, Pleides, and the warg had fallen several hundred meters to the platform below.

‘Paladin, you must heal us,’ shouted Japheth to Kleon. There was no time to demur. Orestes, sizing up the situation rushed forward with Japheth, while Kleon knew one of them must resort to using holy powers to heal, lest they all perish. As the warrior and Orestes dashed madly towards Corborus, hurling both holy power and brandishing weapons, Kleon set about casting spells on them to revive them from the damage Corborus was inflicting. The giant gyre-worm sent out a dampening wave causing severe shadow damage to them and as Kleon arrived down below he set about reviving the priest and the warg. 

Sadly it was too late for the warg, who had taken the brunt of the crystal damage and whose injuries from the fall and the dampening wave had taken his life force. Kleon was moved to pity by the forlorn shape of the animal, the clump of matted fur and blood, its eyes closed over permanently.

The priest was revived and then they urgently had to turn their attention to the other paladin who was flailing and required healing.  Suddenly the massive mechanical worm, a creation intended to extract the precious metal from the earth, which upon Deathwing’s release had become uncontrollable, disappeared from view.

‘He has burrowed!’ shouted Japheth,

‘This is where he is most dangerous,’ said Orestes, ‘watch out for his thrashing charge. Stand your ground!’

Kleon looked around the room nervously, able to hear a faint rumbling and to feel the tremor of the earth beneath his feet. In the distance, behind the paneled doors adjacent to the platform, he could discern a sinister laugh, which was almost like a shriek of delight.

‘That must be her royal highness’ whispered the priest, ‘her time will-’

Before he could finish his sentence the mighty beast had reared up through the ground attacking and casting the priest aside as though he were made of feathers. Again Corborus plunged deep into the body of the earth before rearing up and assaulting Kleon, who was thrown into the air and who would surely have been killed were it not for the armor he had recently acquired.

‘That’s it, he has resurfaced, we must attack!’ yelled Orestes.

With every magic spell at his disposal, Orestes launched at Corborus, striking him cleanly with his elementally charged weapon. Kleon continued to cast healing spells as he was no longer directly in harm’s way. When he saw that the other soldiers were restored, he ran across and lunged at the beast striking blows into its sharp metallic hide. He then released the spell of consecration, a powerful magic that caused Corborus to falter. It was then that Orestes stepped forward with his sword blazing and once again, using Hammer of War, utterly destroyed the monster, causing it to fragment in a whirl of metal pieces.   

Breathing heavily, Orestes asked, ‘are we ready to proceed gentlemen? The high priestess awaits.’ His wry grin returned briefly to his face, but his features were now pale and wan and the smile quickly dispersed.

The paneled doors opened and before them was an opulent room, gilded in gold and decorated with pictures mosaics of various colors. The walls were the shade of lapis lazuli and the floor covered by a sumptuous burgundy tapestry that extended towards a raised platform, upon which sat an immense gold throne.

‘You have come far, but shall come no further,’ a voice said to them. Kleon looked closely at the diminutive figure on the throne, whose eyes spoke of death and whose skin, a pale white marble was, the shade of a sepulcher.

Japheth rushed forward immediately attaching the high priestess. She enacted upon him the curse of blood, which wasted his life blood and, were it not for the priest, his health would have diminished rapidly. Orestes also moved forward casting spells, many of which were absorbed or repulsed by the superior magic defense of the high priestess. Kleon moved more gradually into the chamber hoping to ambush Azil from the flank.

All three fighters advanced simultaneously, swinging weapons that caused little damage to Azil due to her magic defence. As Kleon approached her he was mesmerized by her icy stare, which resonated the blackness of an abyss. Suddenly she turned to him, her eyes looking deep within his soul, and she let out a visceral scream. Thrusting her right arm towards him, she used the elemental magic known as the forcegrip to raise him high into the air before hurling him to the ground.

Orestes then sent a holy shard of energy towards her which knocked her back, weakening her defenses. She laughed in a maniacal, demonic way and, rather than attacking Orestes, she sent a seismic shard, her most powerful attack, at Pleides, who had been placing beneficial magic upon the mantle of Orestes and Japheth. She then cackled in her chilling, demonic fashion before returning her attack to Orestes.

Pleides was unconscious and Kleon had only managed to return to his feet when he saw Azil use her energy shield to repulse both of her main assailants. The warrior, Japheth had been striking her constantly with his blade, and finally had made some progress in weakening the priestess, but the shield had weakened him significantly. Kleon sent out a beam of healing before hurling his holy judgment and exorcism at Azil. She hovered over Orestes and continued to attack him directly. He was unable to move and his life was ebbing from him. Kleon leapt forward and moved in between them as she was baying for his blood. Her magic defense having been weakened by the repeated blows of the warrior’s sword, Kleon now lunged violently, his axe landing prevailing upon the now ailing soulless creature.

With a final powerful swing he managed to enact the death blow, causing the priestess to wither, shrivel up and die. He placed his axe down and went over to Orestes, who he grasped by the shoulders.

‘Are you alright? Speak man!’

‘Paladin, you did well,’ he whispered, ‘The sword is yours. Use it to fight for honor.’ The smile returned to his face once more and faded as he lapsed into unconsciousness. Kleon shook him again and, unclasping the lid on the flask of healing potion, forced Orestes to drink. Orestes coughed and spluttered.

‘You must rest,’ said Kleon. He noticed the priest had revived and was being assisted by Japheth. He scanned the majestic chambers of the high priestess.

He made his way across to the eastern wall of the throne room where The Elementium Fang was displayed in a glass chamber. Kleon looked at it wistfully, his hand reaching out to grasp it. For a moment he wavered, then removing his hand he turned away from the gleaming metal and shouted: ‘Let us leave this place!’

Japheth carried Pleides from the chamber and Orestes, who walked with difficulty, laid his arm across Kleon’s shoulder for support, as they stumbled out of the desolate Stonecore.

***

Kleon knelt before King Alwin of Stormwind, whose noble features and tanned skin looked resplendent, bathed in the light streaming into through the roseate windows of Stormwind palace. Beside him, the legendary paladin trainer, Lord Grayson Shadowbreaker, observed the bestowing on Kleon of the highest honor, the Alliance medallion, allowing Kleon to become a Stormwind praetorian guard.  The king’s daughter Rosaline was beside him and smiled glowingly at Kleon, who rose before the king, accepted the medallion that bestowed the highest office a commoner could receive in Kalimdor.

‘You need not take up active duty just now Kleon. Is there anything else you would like to do?’ asked Alwin in his mellifluous and sagacious voice.

‘With your leave sire, I will return to my homeland. And then, there is a task I must perform.’

Later that week, the loquacious and vertically challenged leather merchant of Strangle Cove was pleasantly surprised to see the familiar burly figure of Kleon stroll up to her.

‘Very well met,’ she said smiling.

Cycling in the Suburbs

The Burrows drove up to the Turner residence punctually at six-thirty; it was the exact time at which they had been asked to arrive. “God luv us,” thought Allan, whose anxiety levels had been increasing during the drive, and whose antipathy towards this occasion had reached its zenith. The day had been cold and now the wind whistled against the windscreen and roof of his BMW, dulling the otherwise civilising effect of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata emanating from the CD player.

As they parked in front of the Turner’s house – one of the many ‘Mansion’-style dwellings of a sprawling outer suburban estate, far larger than the occupants needed – they noticed a  shimmering red Toyota Yaris parked in the driveway, where Mrs Evelyn Turner often parked her Ford.

‘Fuck, I hope there isn’t anyone else coming for dinner!’ Alison Burrows exclaimed.

‘Let’s hope not,’ said Allan, soberly, ‘Maybe when we arrive it will give them the excuse to see this other blow-in off,’ he said laughing tentatively at his own wit.

‘Could be someone from Turner’s work.’

Evelyn Burrows yawned, resigned to whatever fate awaited them. She considered that it might be appropriate to show a little sympathy for Evelyn. Good ol’ Evelyn.

The door was open, and with the lights on, they could see into the hallway. Such a mundane event as glimpsing a scene through an open doorway makes the otherwise quotidian lives of people we know appear fascinating. Such was the case as Allan and Alison Burrows approached the door and saw a woman standing in the Turners’ hallway.

‘It’s Rose Davis,’ whispered Alison giggling a little nervously.

They could see Rose, her dark black hair bouncing under the radiant passage light, folding some papers and closing her sports bag.

Allan was silent and looked intently at the figure in the hall.

‘She’s so plain,’ said Alison.

‘Yes,’ replied the husband, whose eyes did not blink.

‘She’s part of the cycling club he races in; she goes to all the events.’

‘I see,’ he replied. Rose Davis looked sprightly and efficient as she tied the sports bag together, flicked back her hair again and adjusted her jacket in front of the mirror in the hall.

‘She is quite athletic I must say,’ said Alison, trying to be magnanimous and to couch her words in such a way they did not generate too much enthusiasm in her listener.

‘She’s quite short though,’ he said, straining to find a flaw so as to deflect any criticism that might ensue from his observation.

‘Hi Rose, how are you?’ asked Alison.

‘Looks like a windy night out there’. As the Burrows stepped forward they almost stumbled into the hallway where they were immediately stunned by the bright lights overhead. The man was uncertain where to look and began to resemble a hare caught in the spotlight of the tracker. Rose looked directly at him, causing him to squirm further. The absence of any immediate response from Rose other than a too confident smile made the situation even more uneasy.

‘You look well,’ said Alison, attempting a smile and regretting the words as soon as they had come out of her mouth.

‘I can’t complain,’ she replied, that supercilious smile remaining on her lips, her eyes gently shifting across to Mrs Burrows who she had hardly acknowledged up to this point.

She zipped up her jacket fully. Underneath its puffy red fabric one could discern a well endowed chest. Her arms and legs were abundantly agile and her hips, enclosed in a type of skin-tight leggings were taut and slender. One might consider her short.

Evelyn began to fidget with her purse and Allan looked at himself a little sheepishly in the mirror. He wished he had shaved and he was unhappy about the shirt he had chosen, which made him look too ordinary.

‘See you later then,’ said Miss Davis, with a faintly ironic smile. Miss Davis left the house and nimbly made her way to her Toyota.

‘That was Miss Davis,’ said Evelyn Turner, emerging from the kitchen, ‘She’s in the cycling club.’ There was an awkward pause as she showed them through to the lounge room.

‘Rose is a nice lady,’ she added.

‘I’ll bet,’ said Alison almost in a whisper. The irony was lost on Mrs. Turner, who looked somewhat frazzled and frumpy. Alyssa wondered how they had remained friends for so long.

‘She dropped off some peaches.’

‘Are they nice?’ she asked trying to show some interest. Evelyn was looking a little pasty and her eyes looked like extinguished stars.

‘I won’t turn the lights on if you don’t mind. It’s nice sitting here in the twilight.’

‘Whatever you say,’ thought Alison. Evelyn was looking decidedly pale. The man slumped into a chair and thumbed through a newspaper he found on the small table.

‘How are you feeling?’ asked Alison. She really looked frightful.

‘Oh not bad, not bad,’ she replied, before offering them a glass of wine. Allan anticipated the awful cheap wine the Turners served up, but was desperate enough for a drink now to be glad of the offer.

‘Sandi will be down soon. He had a look at some photos that Rose brought over. I leave them alone to talk cycling,’ she said, offering a half hearted smile, ‘Then he went for a shower,’ she added. Evelyn sat down and stared dreamily about her. She seemed happy to be in company and her features relaxed a little.

‘The wind seems to have died down a bit,’ she said.

‘How’s Sandi?” asked Allan, barely looking up from his paper. The wine tasted cheaper than usual.

‘He’s alright I suppose,’ Evelyn said, ‘he still has his asthma, even though he pushes himself so hard!’ her eyes looked away wistfully, as though to say she would rather talk about something else.

Alison wondered how she could stay with such a man, though they all get old and grey. You’d think all that cycling would make him look a little fitter. Evelyn seemed to get more out of it. She accompanied him dutifully to the track each week and went on training rides with him. She could even talk about bikes with some enthusiasm.

She and Evelyn had gone to the same high school together, an exclusive girl’s school in Brighton East. Both of them were clever, but Evelyn never seemed to have any ambitions. Alison had been top of the class and had liked to assert her intellectual dominance over her complaisant friend, though somehow the victory never seemed complete. There was something irritating about Evelyn’s blithe and innocent manner.

The iridescent glow from the twilight lit up Evelyn’s face and gave it a saintly quality. She seemed to still radiate innocence and longsuffering, her hands neatly folded in her lap. It was those hands that created oil paintings that Alison could only despise not emulate. One picture in particular, an emblematic Christ nailed to the cross, garnered the approbation and outrage of the school community, but Alison saw the fragile beauty of the piece and, incensed in a jealous impotent rage, unable to compete with this artistic vision, her scathing remarks denounced the work as puerile and pointless.

Yet somehow they had stayed friends throughout the years, Evelyn complaisant and caring, Alison requiring the stability of communion with a familiar guileless saint-like woman.

Sandi came in then with the ridiculous, impossibly thick blonde hair and that smug expression of his.

‘Good to see you starting early,’ he said with a self satisfied smile, ‘I’ll fix meself a drink then,’ he said imitating a working class pleb.

He poured himself a large glass of the cheap red.

‘Well it’s a good thing we’re not drunk by now given how long you were in the shower,’ said Allan, though it was meant as a joking retort, the sullen edge in his voice created an unwelcome silence.

‘Well I take a shower most evenings me boy,’ Sandi replied, once again imitating a working man and once again with the grating, ingratiating smirk, ‘something you should try from time ta time.’

Alan, certain that there was some sort of euphemism in the word shower, wanted to reply but couldn’t think of the words. He took another drink, this time a big gulp of the awful wine, which was now beginning to taste a little better. That surely is wig he’s wearing, he thought, or he must have had some sort of treatment.

‘How were the photos?’ asked Alison with a hint of a smile.

The photos?’

‘The ones Rose brought over sweetie,’ said Evelyn.

‘O those. Fine. Just the photos of the latest event. I’ll show you the DVD of the race later.’

‘Anyway, dinner’s almost ready guys,’ said Evelyn, ‘I hope you like it. I’ve made my famous Hunter’s Stew, Risotto and for dessert, baked cheesecake.

Mr Turner spoke almost continuously during dinner. He told stories of the First World War and the incapacity of Hitler, the fact there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz (‘they were only put in after the war for the sake of appearances’). He talked about the communists destroying Hungary and the Japanese Tojo plan to create a new world order in a pact with Germany.

‘And then the Chinese. What the Americans fail to realise is the strength of the Chinese military. Given they are almost bankrupt it will be easy for the Chinese to sweep down and take over the Asian countries and to totally capture Australia…’ Given that he had worked primarily as a male nurse, he seemed to have picked up pockets of useless knowledge and had become an expert on everything.

It was difficult to understand how Sandi had become so successful. Perhaps those rides with Rose Davis were good for him. He had worked solidly all his life in a variety of professions, not distinguishing himself in any of them. He had been extremely frugal and through selective investing had managed somehow to own several properties and enough shares to keep him tied over for many years to come. The Turners had moved out to Templestowe, where they lived in a house more opulent than Evelyn had ever imagined for herself. She sometimes felt inadequate to the material prosperity she enjoyed and that was probably why she dressed in such a plain style. Still, the cycling invigorated her and she was getting quite handy with the camcorder to film Sandi when he raced.

Alison had tried to quit smoking recently but felt the need for a cigarette after dinner. She carried a pack in her handbag.

‘Mind if I go out there for a smoke?’ she asked indicating the patio.

‘Sure thing, sweet cheeks,’ replied Sandi who opened the glass door that lead to the rear yard.  She grimaced at the look he gave her. Sandi brought her an ash tray and then lingered on the porch as she commenced her cigarette. Evelyn was washing up a little in the kitchen, occasionally casting a glance across at them.

‘We’ll have desert and coffee soon… when you’re ready,’ she offered feebly.

Alison waved back in acknowledgement, noticing the small diamond on Evelyn Turner’s finger. They had gotten engaged in the days before Sandi was worth anything. Sandi was leaning towards Evelyn, making her feel uncomfortable. Her arms were folded over her chest with one hand holding the cigarette. She looked bored as he spoke to her about what he got up to over the weekend.

‘I’ve got some new footage of a race. I’ll show you guys when we sit down for coffee. I raced at Albert Park on the weekend. I’ll play you the Lakes Entrance ride as well. That was a glorious day. I actually placed third in that one.’

‘Didn’t we see that one last time?’ asked Alison, as politely as she could.

‘Yes, I’m sure you can bear to watch these fine Lycra clad legs of mine. You never used to mind seeing me in the flesh,’ he whispered.

‘You’re a real charmer,’ she said, stubbing out the cigarette and making her way back inside,

‘How’s that desert coming along Evelyn?’ she said chirpily. ‘Do you need a hand?’

‘No I’m fine. Let’s all go into the lounge room she said nervously looking at Sandi, who sheepishly entered in after Alison.

She took the cheesecake and the coffee and set it up neatly in the lounge.

Sandi enthusiastically grabbed the disc and inserted in into the DVD player.  Alison watched Evelyn bringing in the coffee with such tranquil grace and ease. How does she put up with this bastard? I guess it serves her right for being such a delicate saint-like creature. They always attract the most abominable types. Perhaps only a saint like Evelyn could stay with a cretin like this. And to think I…

He put on the appalling DVD of him racing in a local cycling race at the Templestowe criterium. Even Alan looked like he would jump out of his skin with boredom and reached for another swill of wine as the coffee arrived.

‘This was my great victory in B grade,’ he said.

‘Yes that was a good one,’ said Evelyn with a degree of sincerity that shocked even Alan.

‘This is where my finishing move comes in,’ said Sandi

In the dim light, his face looked tragic.

Over the sound of cyclists one could hear Evelyn cheering behind the camera and see the nervous movement of her hand as she filmed his final lap. She had become surprisingly adept at handling the technology thought Alison.

‘Darling, after the tape has finished do you mind packing the dishwasher? I have cleared out the other dishes.’

A scowl momentarily appeared on his face, to reflect the fact that she had interrupted his reverie in such a moment of triumph and that she requested such a mundane chore from him. The look suggested she had let him down.

‘O well, while I’m gone, you could play the Lakes Entrance race, I suppose. Allan had almost drifted off to sleep but woke sat up dreamily in his chair at Sandi’s departure. Sandi put the DVD in the machine and a strange crackling came on the screen followed by a series of indistinct images and a lack of sound.

‘O dear,’ she said, getting up, ‘I do believe the disk is damaged. She was looking visible shaken ‘Sandi will be so upset.’

Allan and Evelyn tried not to let their relief show too evidently. Evelyn put the damaged tape aside and in a moment of indecision she said: ‘what’s this one, I wonder?’ and picking up a disk from their collection in the cabinet to the left of the plasma TV, she placed it deftly in the machine.

‘Maybe the machine’s broken,’ suggested Allan hopefully. There was no such saving grace however as the machine snapped into life and an image emerged.

They could see a crystal clear sky and a clear road with a sparkling beach in the background. The sound of seagulls could be heard and it wasn’t for a moment or two that a cyclist even came into view.

‘I don’t think I’ve seen this one before,’ said Evelyn. She had that serene expression on her face that filled Alison with contempt and wonder.

‘It must be something that Sandi arranged when I had to go into hospital. A couple of Sundays I didn’t go with him to the weekend ride. Evelyn’s longsuffering nature seemed so accustomed to punishment that she almost seemed eager to view an event the forgoing of which to any sane person would have seemed a blessing; but she was interrupted in her pleasure by a call from the kitchen.

‘Eileen, I can’t work this bloody thing, will you come in here?’

 On the screen Sandi came into view and he was in his ridiculous Lycra; he rode his bike over to whoever was filming, big cheesy grin on his face and a knowing look. A high pitched chuckling could be heard presumably by the person filming.

‘Alright, I’ll come and fix it up. We can pack it together,’ she said complacently as if the denial of pleasure was customary.

‘That Sandi, useless as a stuck pig,’ said Alison.

 ‘We’ll get to watch the cycling without the incisive commentary,’ said Allan sardonically.

The two of them relaxed, the stupor the wine induced a pleasant release from the boredom. Meanwhile, Sandi was still riding around in circles, and the chuckling became shriller. Then the tape fractured automatically, cutting to a different scene. It was in a darkened room and Sandi was sitting on a bed without his shirt, no fluffy blonde wig on top and the camera moving as though someone were mounting it on a tripod.

‘Are you sure you want to film this you saucy man?’ the female voice asked.

‘Why not?’ replied Sandi with a lascivious twinkle of the eye.

Once again giggling could be heard and then a female form, ran out from behind the camera and jumped on the bed beside Sandi. As she was naked as the day she was born, it wasn’t evident at once that it was Rose Davis but there she was with pert breasts and a toned backside from years of cycling. As she frolicked on the best she laughed the whole time.

The Burrows sat up straight neither knowing where to look as though the machine had taken over the room. Allan squirmed, his face flushed with embarrassment. He could not look at his wife. He recalled a similar dimly lit hotel room, where Miss Davis and had shown him those same smiles, the same breasts, and the same firm buttocks.  The two of them had been locked in a similar embrace two years ago.

His wife was equally sickened, remembering how as an insecure young woman she had given in to the whiles of this man, who seemed so assured, so worldly, so confident. It was in sleeping with Sandi she could erase from her mind the moral superiority of Eileen. But once she had been with the man he sickened her. She felt nothing but revulsion for herself.

Then the screen went fuzzy again and returned to the original scene. The bedroom romp presumably had been taped over unsuccessfully. They could see the beach again, the sunlight over the horizon. The rise and fall of seagulls in a gentle breeze. Periodically a cyclist came across the screen.

Sandi walked into the room, followed by his wife; the two of them looking like innocent children, almost smiling. Evelyn did always like it even if they did them most meaningless things together. Noticing the scene they were watching, which now mercifully came to a close Sandi asked,

‘Who’s for a drink?’

Allan promptly concurred.

‘Better make that two,’ Alison said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Choice of the Valkyries

The Choice of the Valkyries

By Paul Donovan

Mund’s face wore a sombre expression and the still healthy dark brown hair was plunged back in a very becoming style. Mysterious fellow he was though, his eyes were brooding and melancholy as though plunged into some hidden sadness only he knew about. Mund was making his way slowly through his beer, though he had lost interest in it. He was staring at his hands and the glass in front of him, his eyes dull, as though deep in thought. Mund, who took pride in his appearance, was wearing expensive silver cufflinks, a pristine white shirt and a royal blue suit. He had not bothered to wear a tie on this occasion and the unbuttoned collar lent him and air of refinement, creating the impression of being well-dressed but not overstated.

The iPhone in his pocket buzzed and he checked his emails for the third time that hour, as though looking for something specific, but his anxious expression deepened upon the observation.

The bar was half full (or half empty, if you’re a pessimistic barkeeper, hoping for more patronage). The smell of beer and cigarettes irritated Mund, who gazed around the tavern; the smell and the atmosphere didn’t feel right.

His companion, Wotan, was at the bar ordering drinks.

I shouldn’t be here, Mund thought. Why do I still see this man? I used to think he was wise but now I feel he has outlived his usefulness. Mund was in his late twenties. Following a short stint in university where he dabbled in the black arts of whisky and undergraduate women he had remained fairly sober and kept his of sense of Christian integrity intact. The sunlight burst in through the windows to his right and he noticed the light green leaves on the plane trees and the chirping of birds through the large panels of glass that looked out over the street. The sounds of vehicles moving around the city he found unsettling but, as he was unable to mask the sound that intruded on his temporary solitude, he was moved to a feeling of disquietude. He knew this would be the last fresh burst of sunshine for the day, that night would soon be upon them and that the perception of life, warmth, and the joy of spring, would be as fleeting as his lustful youth.

Wotan returned with two bottles of beer and as he walked over from the bar. Mund, whose gaze was distracted by the sight of his companion returning, examined the fellow deliberately. Wotan’s eyes were stern and animated at the same time. They danced around with lively grace as though reflecting some mischief planned by their owner. The man had longish unkempt greying hair. He was balding a little on top and he had a rotund face that contained the beginnings of a neat moustache and whiskers in a Zen grin. As he watched Wotan return with the beers he was struck by the enigmatic look in his eyes.

There’s something I don’t trust about this character, thought Mund. They had met several years ago, in fact they day before he had met Linde, his wife. They were in a little Irish pub, you know, the quaint little variety that springs up here and there with shamrocks on the doors, with a couple of live musicians to play to the Anglo-Saxon beer drinkers, and which boast a menu befitting an impoverished Irish hovel.

‘Well me boy,’ said Wotan returning the smile on his face increasing as though he read the thoughts of the other.

He put the beer down gleefully.

‘Why so glum me boy?’ he asked.

‘What’s there to be happy about? I’m content enough but I’m not celebrating.’

‘Well, wey doncha celerbrayte den?’ Ters a lot ta be happy about me boy. Are ye supposed ta be a Christian an all.’

‘Yes I’m a Christian and I can enjoy food and drink in moderation but must not get led astray into rampant sensuality; I do try to restrain myself.’

‘There’s a worthy fella then,’ Wotan replied smiling even more broadly than before. ‘Knowing moderation, ‘tis a very wise man indeed. But tha good Lord’d want ya t’be enjoy’n yourself heartily here with me, a friend, a companion who bout ye a beer and ordered ye a nice lounch.’

Where did this Irish accent spring from, wondered Mund and why is it so beguiling? It’s like talking to a leprechaun.

‘Ah, dis be the loyfe,’ said the smiley man. ‘Christianity is great but there is nothing that warms the cockles of a man’s heart like some good hearty food and a fine drink.’

‘It is certainly most pleasing,’ replied Mund nonchalantly.

‘How’s that woman of yours?’

‘She’s fine.’ He remembered that one of the reasons he was so enamoured with Wotan was they had been together when he met Linde, as though he had somehow engineered the encounter.

‘Still enjoyin’ married life as much as you did?’

‘It’s okay.’ But then, in a sense he also blamed Wotan who had promised him so much happiness but had as often as not led him into misery.

‘Well as Schopenhauer said about women, well you know, I know you’ve been readin’ him again, I can tell by the look on your face–’

‘I know I know, they’re children their whole lives.’

‘Thet’s roight,’ he said laughing. ‘You still look so serious. You know you get a wife and you have some fine food and song and then you still look serious. What can a man do to cheer you up?’

‘I rejoice only in the Lord. Do not be content with too much bread and wine,’ Mund responded nervously.

‘That’s not even scripture, you’re slippin me boy, you used to be able to reel them off.’

He looked up with a scowl on his face.

‘I’m happy, don’t worry about me.’ Thinking back on his life over the past three years, each time happiness had been in his grasp, Wotan came along and offered fresh pleasures, fine clothes, promotions, extravagant riches. Yet it all seemed to vanish somehow.

‘You know what; you look bored that’s the problem. Too much prayer, too much sackcloth and ashes. God doesn’t want to you live like that After all, life is three times too short to be bored.’

‘That’s not scripture either, that’s Nietzsche.’

‘Ah, but you agree with me.’

‘Your Christian morality has hamstrung you; I can see it on your face. You know Schopenhauer also said that women should not be treated as ladies – it only puffs them up – and that men should marry many more than one. Marriage is a debt contracted in youth and repaid in old age. If you went out and enjoyed yourself a little more, found yourself a few women. You can’t argue with nature. I know when you were a young man you used to have two or three a night! Boy you were a ladies’ man.’

‘He who has found a wife has found a good thing.’

‘Ah there you go with your scriptures again and here am I trying to cheer you up. You’re simply incorrigible seein’ as your quotin’ scriptures, which it is evident you don’t believe in, well I can do the same too – a bitter wife is like constant dripping. Better to live on a rooftop than with a contentious woman.’

‘Alright, enough already.’
‘You’ll be comforted to know that most geniuses from Socrates onwards married she-dragons. So you’re in good company–’

‘-You’re calling my wife a she-dragon!’

‘Whoa steady on me boy, of course she’s not; of course she’s not; but they are the fairer sex, we all know you gotta have patience with them.’

‘Yes, lot’s of patience.’ He thought of one of his first meetings with Linde, before the fighting, before the love for her had turned into distaste and boredom, in days where he scoffed at Oscar Wilde’s, claim that ‘the only thing worse than not getting what you want, is getting what you want.’

He was dressed in black like a young poet that he saw himself as – a Keats or a Byron or someone like that; poets he had heard about but not read, though he had read some of the melancholy works of Shelly and whilst he found the poetry dull, he found the wailing melancholy alluring. He was 23 she was 19. Even though he knew about Schopenhauer’s definition of love, that it was simply a biological urge, the need to follow the universal Will, the Will that propagates the species, he was nonetheless enchanted by her. He walked past the tall rows of trees along the red dusty brown orange brick tiles, hands in the pockets of his dark jacket, the wind irritating his cheeks.

He know he was playing a type of game and that marriage was a debt contracted in youth and paid for in age; that love catapulted men and women together, yet within a few years they detested each other and each living day became a misery – days consumed by the failure to communicate, to understand one another, the lack of care and the desperate search for elusive love. He was impelled by a sexual desire, not love, despite whatever protestations of romance appeared to him, like the discordant sounds one hears in a fairground.

So they played at love like a game, a game where the partners seemed to know intuitively their assigned roles. He was in the paradoxical position of wanting something more than he had ever wanted anything before, yet remaining aloof at the same time; wary, cautious, cognisant of the complications of his liaison, but willing to carry on regardless of the consequences. This is how we continue to populate the earth, he thought.

She approached; her weary Asian eyes always betrayed a hint of nervousness when he saw them (perhaps it was true what they say, Asian people have no soul). The thin arms, the placid gait – as though walking on a cloud or as though moving her body from place to place was a mere formality, an inconvenience. Then he noticed her gentle smile, which made him start involuntarily, for he know that he would do anything for this smile, this wave of happiness she expressed for him, which, in turn filled him with immense satisfaction.

He had done badly in his exams. He knew he was drifting towards the life of a mediocre maths teacher the way his father had been. Destiny seemed to fall into place for him; moderate income, moderate family, moderate career; nothing would be in excess. The grand dreams that filled his mind from time to time crept away disillusioned by the minor failures, the recognition he was not as good as he thought – that his maths was not that good, that his honours degree would not gain a distinction. The threadbare clothes he despised would become his uniform in the real world, where he would not be able to afford anything better. He would come to be despised by students, seen as eccentric and vague – the arrogance of youth, the shield against the disappointments of the world would have vanished – whatever hopes of glory sunk in this sea of mediocrity.

Yet there she was, immortal beautiful like Helen; she appeared before him like an apparition, at once fearful and austere, wonderful, chaste and terrifying. She was a vision of immortality, as she represented neither herself – nor the love and lust she inspired in him – but the voice or a future generation crying out. Schopenhauer said that when men and women look at one another they look for that which will produce what represents the best chance of securing the future of the species. The man prizes beauty and health while the woman searches her prospects for intelligence, vigour and eminence, shunning the peak of male beauty, the teenage boy becoming the man.

Was he what she desired? Had he gained that eminence in his own eyes that she sought in them. He doubted himself and this troubled him. It seemed ever since his first meeting with Wotan, the longing eyes of love had yet to look upon him, though many a time his own longing had burned within.

‘I love you,’ she said after a while.

These words were meaningless, almost risible to him, but when you are sitting in a restaurant gazing into your beloved’s eyes or grasping their waist so you are tethered to them during a storm – and their caress sends shivers of ecstasy through your spine – then it is hard to play the philosopher. We fear losing the pleasure the moment brings us – this moment created by the voice of the next generation crying to be heard, drawing us together so that the moment of conception might occur.

Instead, with a tone more mocking than he intended, he intoned, ‘I love you too,’ echoing her lie.

Perhaps romance is love after a fashion, but why then had Jane Austen never portrayed a happy marriage in all her novels and the only joy being in the arms and heart of those seeking love? Novelists should not be allowed to talk about love. Instead of removing God from the novels, from Fielding onwards, they should have removed love. Only a philosopher or a scientist should discuss something so important. Love is feeding the poor. Love is watching a dying person, staying by their side through the night terrors. Love is working each day to provide for a family who neither thanks nor respects you. If you love me, keep my commandments. Love is keeping the commandments of God.

So when he held Linde, he was aware, like Marcus Aurelius, that a state of flux was the only thing he could take for granted and that, this too would pass; that whilst this was not love, a time for love would come.

He remembered Wagner’s words:

Laugh if weakness wears you down, he whispered as his arms enfolded her stomach, In your womb you carry the world’s most wonderful hero…

‘What was that?’ she asked dreamily, the sunlight casting a golden glow on her forehead like the fire surrounding Brünhilde.

‘Never mind,’ he said, pensively.

Laughing like hyenas, the valkyries ride amidst battle deciding who lives and who will die, the most fortunate of whom are transported on their winged steeds to the immortal halls of Valhalla, the abode of heroes. Perhaps they also choose who comes into this world – only those brave enough to pass through the fires of life.

He took another draught of beer. ‘Anyway Wotan, I’m tired of this conversation. When the joy of life goes all we have is duty.’

‘That’s why you should have some fun young man; you’re still young enough.’

‘I’ve had enough of your fun.’

‘My fun?’ he looked seriously at Mund and his eyes like two burning coals filled Mund with terror, ‘Just remember it was my ‘fun’ that brought you and Linde together, who gave you the great job you now despise, takin’ you from a scruffy undergraduate to become a fine ‘gentleman’ in your fancy clothes and you no dismiss this as fun, thinking you no longer need me. You think things are bad now, when you sit around with everything you could wish for and still complainin’. Things could get a whole lot worse for you, me boy.’

Mund had been listening carefully to the words of Wotan, a stern, concerned look darkening his features. He straightened up and with a shrug of his shoulders replied:

‘I’m going to return to my duty, even if it means no more pleasure this side of the eternal divide. I’ve come to realise, thanks to you and your tricks Wotan that happiness is not possible. Satisfying our desires only leads to less unhappiness. Chasing pleasure can lead to more pain and the only hope is a quite life. Leave Valhalla to someone else. I’m going back to my wife, we will have a kid and we will live miserably but tolerably in the world.’

 

Written explanation

I was inspired by the heroic passion of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and wanted to inject some of his epic heroism into a modern, mundane existence. We struggle with day to day concerns, beside which the epic battles in fantasy stories seem quite tranquil, but each small task, each burden we face as humans requires a degree of heroism and courage.

I am intrigued by the idea of Mephistopheles being a tempter to Faust and I injected some of that in the story. I cast Wotan as a mischievous, possibly god-like influence in the role of Mephistopheles. What I love about Wagner’s Wotan, the father of the Gods, is that he is a typical capricious, foolish, selfish embodiment of a deity. He continually brings curses upon himself and others by his actions and the misuse of power, which stems from his own frailties and weakness. I also liked the idea of Sigmund and Sieglinde rejecting Wotan’s offer of Valhalla so they could consummate their incestuous love. It was not so much the incestuous love but the bravery of this decision to reject eternal pleasure and glory for the sake of living as a suffering human, in a state of imperfection that I used as the theme of my story. This reminded me of Schopenhauer’s idea that love is such a strong motivating force as it is the voice of the next generation, whose will brings lovers together so inexorably. So I have that element of Mund rejecting Wotan, living in worldly unhappiness instead of a life of pleasure offered by Wotan.

As far as language is concerned I have alternate between a colloquial conversational style and formal language choices in my description. I have also attempted the use of an accent in one of the main characters to experiment with dialogue and to portray Wotan as an object of merriment as well as devilry – something like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[polldaddy poll=5085232