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The Empty Quarter


The Myths of the


Divine Astarte 4




Jerome Brooke






            On the next morning Chan came to me, with a bowl of wine.


            She explained to me that on the morrow I would leave the city with Sarya. I asked her where we were going.


            "Astarte!"  She relied.  "The Empty Quarter."


            I spent a few hours in the preparation of my weapons and gear.  I did not seek out the men of the house.  I was not sure that I would be understood.  I  packed my revolver in my saddle pouch.


I woke early the next day.  I was ready with my weapons in short order. I went to the courtyard to seek out Sarya.


            Sarya was waiting for me, with his horse saddled.  He carried a long lance, with a blue silk pennant tied behind the blade.


            Maritra was standing by my horse.  There were tears on her face.  She gave me a quick embrace.  She gave me a leather bag filled with small loaves of bread and dried fruit.


            "I love you,"  She said in English, her voice aquiver.


            I mounted my own horse.  Men of the compound led two pack horses to our side.  I took the lead rope of one of the mounts.


            Sarya touched his forehead with a finger, nodded to me, and rode thru the gate of the compound.  I followed.  Maritra stood beside the gate, waving as we rode down the street.


            We made our way down the road leading to the city gates.  The hour was early, but the streets were filled with carts.  They were stacked with goods intended for the shops of the city.


            We reached the main gates, already open to the rising sun in the distance beyond.


            Outside the gate was a double line of horsemen, armed with lances.  Their commander, in a gilt helmet, rode forward.  He stopped a few paces from us, and saluted.


            He gave us his name, "Dolara."  He was the commander of the Royal Guard.


He wheeled his horse, and rode down the road leading to the east.


            We halted on the road in one hour.  Dolara and Sarya held a brief conference. We left the road, and headed into the sands of the desert.  We rode on till the fall of night, then stopped to rest.  We watered the horses, and ate a meal of dried fruit and wine.  I spread a blanket over my saddle on the ground, and was able to sleep for a time.


            After a few hours sleep, we mounted our horses once more.  In the cool of the night we made good time. 


            The constellations were all wrong, very different from those I had studied.  The largest of the moons hung low in the sky.


            We traveled thru the night, stopping for short meals, and to sleep for an hour or two. 


            As we went deeper into the desert we could see a line of dark peaks in the West.  Sarya told me they were called the Mountains of the Moon.  They rose like a dark wall from the plain.


            After a stop we rode on to the foothills.  On the top of a hill in the distance, I could see a line of buildings.  Smoke was rising from some of the structures. We followed a trail thru the hills, and rode on to the hamlet.


            The settlement was very quiet.  A solitary ram wandered thru the buildings.  We dismounted, and led our horses on to the central well.


            I walked with Sarya to one of the huts.  The door stood open.  The interior was in disarray, with belongings scattered on the floor.  There were no signs of blood, or of a battle.


            We left the hut.  One of the riders called out in the distance.  We hurried to his side.  The man pointed to a smooth stretch of sand.  There were large tracks, with claw marks.


            "Gazen!"  The guardsman said.


            A horn sounded in the distance.  Another blast answered it from another quarter.  I searched the horizon.  I could see nothing.  The horn sounded once more, much fainter in the distance.


Sarya spoke with Dolara and a knot of other riders.  Attacks by gazen on settlements were very unusual.  The abandonment of the hamlet was a surprise to all the men.


The gazen were a danger to hunters.  However, they hid from the eyes of men.  They dwelt in remote places, in the hills, the deserts, and wastelands.


As we rode we could see smoke rising on the horizon.  We also found tracks made by lines of people with carts, moving away from the smoke and the fear.


After the horses had been watered, we rode onward toward the mountains. As we neared the foothills we could see a ragged line of people in the distance.  The people were accompanied by carts.  They were fleeing from the unknown dangers, to an unseen goal.





* * *   * * *    * * *







            We rode onward after our stop at the hamlet. As the light began to fade, we neared the foothills of the mountains. We rode onward in the fading light, climbing into the mountains. 


            We stopped for a few hours to sleep, and to eat our dried rations.  I ate some dried fruit.  I spread my blanket at the foot of a boulder, and closed my eyes. 


            I woke suddenly.  I was being gently shaken. I opened my eyes to find Sarya by my side.


            "Gazen,"  He whispered.  He pointed down the valley.  The horses were snorting, pulling at their halters.


            I looked down the trail. In the moonlight I could see dim figures moving slowly.


            I belted my sword belt around my waist, and picked up my spear.  I glanced to my right and saw the rest of the men were forming a circle.


            I moved toward them.  They had formed a wide circle. The men inside the circle were placing bolts into their crossbows.  The rest of the men were holding spears.


            The gazen were now very close.  They were moving with speed.


            "Now!"  Dalara yelled.


            The crossbow men loosed their bolts.  A number of the beasts reared, and screamed in pain. 


I heard the shrill blast of a horn.  The air was filled with the cries of the gazen, as they rushed forward.


            One of the creatures appeared before me.  I jabbed at its face.  The animal reared, howling.  A bolt of a crossbow appeared in its chest.  The gazen screamed in pain.  I plunged my spear into its middle.  The creature fell backwards.


            I glanced to my right.  One of the beasts had pinned one of the men to the ground.  I thrust my spear into its side.  The gazen rose, and turned toward me.  I jabbed at its head.  Sarya appeared at its side, and hacked at its head with his sword.


            I turned to find a tall man in mail advancing on me.  He was armed with a sword.  He sprung at me, jabbing at me with his blade. I turned his blade, and slashed at him with my sword.


            The man stumbled, and I cut at his neck.  He fell to his knees.  I slashed at his neck once more, nearly severing his neck.  His body fell backwards.


            Two of the other men were jabbing at one of the creatures.  I ran to their side, my sword at the ready.  A crossbow bolt struck the creature in the neck. The gazen fell on its side, howling in pain.


            The floor of the valley was littered with the bodies of the gazen.  A few of the creatures were still alive, surrounded by members of our troop.


            The crossbow men were picking off the beasts with their bolts.  The creatures fell, one by one. 


            I cleaned my spear on the pelt of one of the animals.  Sarya appeared at my side.  He told that we would ride on.  None of our men had been lost.


            I led him to the body of the man I had killed.


            The man was wearing a coat of mail.  He had a horn on a throng at his side.


            So, he was leading the gazen - the Master of the Beasts!  I mused.


            Sarya  had a puzzled look on his face as he stared at the body of the dead man.


            We walked over to watch as the wound of one of the men was being bound up.  He had been bitten on the forearm by one of the gazen.  He was lucky not to have lost the arm.  He was in pain, and was given unmixed wine.


            We saddled up, and rode on thru the hills. After another hour, we came into a broad pass leading into the mountains.    We could see dim figures on the heights as we rode into the pass.


            Sarya spoke with me as we rode. He told me that he had never heard of a man leading the gazen. Nor had he heard of an attack by gazen on any large party, or a town.  He was also surprised by the numbers of the creatures.  The gazen was learning the ways of men - or remembering the ways of their sires. 


            Sarya explained that most gazen lived in the mountains.  They had dens in caves, and nests in the deep forests.  In the desert they dug dens in the ravines. 


            There were stories that the gazen long ago ruled the coast.  Men came, and drove them into the hills.  There were tales of great kings leading the tribes of men, and great battles with the beasts.


            The numbers of the gazen had once been large.  Their skulls had been piled high by men after battles with the creatures.


They were said to still have a ruined city in the Empty Quarter.  The city was  largely deserted, but was still visited by gazen from distant parts of their range.  The walls were of field stone, stacked without mortar.


            The creatures did not use weapons.  Their claws and fangs were a match for our own spears and arrows.  There paws were awkward, they were not dexterous.  They could not use tools, even if they had the needed cunning.  Swords and spears of men were useless to them.


            The manufacture of arms might be within their mental range, but they did not have hands like those of men. 


            They were able to stack stones, and pull a sled of some sort to move them to their city.  Now,   They were hunted like the predatory cats of the desert.  Past glory now would only be the subject of tales told in the cave to cubs.  The gazen dreamed of the days when they were more than savage beasts.


            They lived where there were few men.  The high mountains, the deserts and arid plains, were their homes.  Only in the wilds, where men did not dwell, were they able to survive.  Now they served only as trophies of the hunt.


            But the gazen could still dream of their revenge, and plot the fall of the cities of men.  In their caves, in wastelands, in dim forests, hatred was nursed. 


            Hunts were sometimes made to harass the gazen.  Great hunts could drive hundreds of the beasts out into the open.  The gazen always fought with rage.  This made them valued as sport by men.  Their pelts were displayed with pride by hunters.  Men with scars from their claws and fangs wore them with pride.






* * *   * * *  * * *






            We made our way thru the pass, and into the foothills on the other side of the mountain.  We stopped for a rest by the banks of a swift stream, flowing down from the heights.


            I took off my robes, and stepped into the stream.  I rinsed off the dust of the desert.  I climbed out of the water, and sat to rest on some rocks near the bank.


            I soon donned my desert robes, and walked to the top of a knoll near the stream.  I glanced about, and noticed movement upstream.  I watched the distant figure for a time.


            I returned to the horses, and donned my sword belt.  I returned to the stream, and made my way up stream.  I rounded a bend in the stream, and came upon a young girl standing in the center of the stream.


            She raised her eyes, her mouth opening in surprise.  "Hello,"  I called.  She stepped from the stream, and smiled at me hopefully.


            I helped her gather her clothes, and beckoned for her to follow me.  We returned to the others.  Sarya and the others gathered about us.  He engaged her in a rapid exchange.  After a time, he turned to me and explained to me that she was lost.  Her hamlet had been attacked by gazen, and she had fled into the night.  She had been looking for others from her clan.  The name of the girl was Galena.


            I went up to the girl, and gave her my wine skin.  She drank from it, with a smile.  The girl dressed in her robes, and we mounted up.  The girl took one of our spare horses.  We gave her a head scarf to wear.


            In a few hours, we continued to ride into the sands.  In a few hours, I began to see the towers of a city.  The towers seemed to waver in the moonlight.   This city was one of large white domes, and soaring towers. 


            As we rode closer, the city no long shimmered.  However, at our backs, a strange haze covered the horizon.


            We rode onwards till we reached a road in the desert.  The road was broad, with a surface of clay.  We decided to follow the road.   We had seen no more of the gazen, or their masters.


            We continued to ride toward the city.  The towers grew larger on the horizon.  I was able to make out a gate in the city wall, with massive towers on each side.


            In another hour, we were at the entrance of the city.  The gates began to swing open.  We rode past the gateway, and into a large square.  On each side of the square were huge domes of bright metal.


            We rode into the square, and followed the road past the buildings.  The road led straight into the city.  We passed large domes and towers.


            As we rode forward, I could make out a large pyramid at the centre of the city.  The pyramid was composed of glass of a dark tone.  It had steps leading up to an entrance on the front side.  


            We rode up to the steps of the structure, and dismounted.  There were large fountains in a circle around the great triangle.  We led our horses to low pools to water them.  We filled our water skins from the fountains.


            I gestured to my companions, and pointed at the stairs.  I turned, and walked up the steps.  I was followed by Sarya and the men of the guard. We left a squad of men with the horses. We approached the double doors of the structure.  The doors began to swing outward.


            I did not slow my pace.  I walked into the structure.  It was filled with a dim light.  My eyes adjusted to the dim interior.


            I was able to see a platform at the opposite end of the room.  On the platform was a throne, with a motionless figure seated upon it.  The throne was a huge convex chair, studded with gems.


            I continued to walk forward.  The others followed, hesitantly.  As I went forward, I could see the person on the throne was a woman, wearing a long blue robe, crowned by a silver diadem.


            The woman held up a staff, and spoke.


            "Welcome, warrior.  I am the ruler of this city, Astarte, the Immortal.  Your men shall have gold to take to your queen, as a sign of my favor."  The woman spoke in English.


            I stopped, and drew my sword, and saluted.


            "Glory to the Queen of the Mirage.  I am yours to command."


            The woman gestured to her side.  There were three large coffers there.


            "Take the gold of the Mirage, Warrior - a gift to your comrades."


            I walked to one of the chests, and raised the lid.  It was filled with gold coins, plate and chains.


            "Come,"  I gestured at the warriors of the guard.  They came forward.  


            The guardsmen spread their capes on the floor, and began to load them with gold.  When they had returned to the front of the throne, the woman spoke once more.


            "Now send your men to the Queen of their city.  Tell her that great victories shall be hers, and that she will be my younger sister.  You shall remain here to await my pleasure."


            The lady spoke to Sarya in his tongue.  The men of the guard bowed, and walked out, with their heavy burden of gold.  It could be the ransom of a great king.


            Dalara and Sarya remained.  The girl, Galena also lingered.


            Astarte spoke to them in their own language.


            Then she explained to me.


            "I have told them to return to their city.  You shall remain here with me."


            "As it is said, so shall it shall be done, my lady."


            The two men saluted me.  Sarya nodded.  I bowed to him.  The men turned, and walked out the great entrance. Galena followed them. Their footsteps rang thru the vast throne room.


            I watched them walk to the door.





*  *  *    *  *  *    *  *  *










            The two men paused at the entrance to the hall.  They turned, and raised their swords in a salute.  I raised my hand in farewell.  They nodded, and turned to the door.


            The doors swung shut behind Dalara and Sarya.  I turned to face the lady.


            "Come with me, Warrior."


            She rose, and walked thru a portal that opened behind the throne.  The woman was very tall - over six feet, close to my height.  Her classic features were lovely.  Her  hair and eyes were black, her skin was dusty.  Her hair fell in waves. I followed her into a small room, with a table.  She gestured, and I sat down.


            She poured   a blue liquid into a goblet, and gave it to me.  She also gave me a bowl of fruit.  I tasted the fruit, of a type that I had not seen before.


            After I had taken some of the sweet drink, Astarte took my hand.  The Lady was solid, and strong.  She had a good figure, steel covered by velvet. Her hand was cold, and dry.  She led me into another room containing a large pool.  In the side of the pool a large fountain stood.


            Three women stood by the edge of the pool.  They came to my side, and helped me to remove my robes.  They poured pails of water over me, and used a soap cream to cleanse me of the dust of the road.


I stepped into the pool.  The women removed their tunics and joined me in the pool.


            One of the ladies took a basin from the edge of the pool and filled it with water.  She poured it over my head.    The water swirled at my feet.  The women and the Queen giggled at my nude form.


            One of the women led me from the pool. She helped me to dry with a towel. Another gave me a cloth, and helped me to wrap it around my waist.


            Astarte walked up to me once more.  She took my hand once more, and led me into yet another room.  The room contained a divan, draped in blue silk.  She sat down on the couch, and pulled me down beside her.  She kissed my cheek. She placed her hand on my chest, then touched my lips with the back of her fingers.  Her scent was of exotic spice.


            "Your lips are warm, and moist.  I can feel the blood rushing thru your veins, Warrior."


            She rose.  "You will be my Champion, warrior. You are like the men I remember from my youth."


            She walked to a large gong in the corner, and rang it with a heavy mallet. Three women appeared from a side door.  They were the women from the pool.


            "They will care for you, my champion."





*  *  *    *  *  *     *  *  *









            When I woke in the morning, the room was empty.  I rose from the bed, and looked about me.  A woman appeared thru a side door.  She was one of my new attendants.  She took me into a side room, with a small pool.  She helped me to bathe, and to don a tunic.


            After my bath, the goddess reappeared. She greeted me, and bade me to follow.  She entered a room with a large table, and sat down in one of the chairs.  There was a pitcher, and two goblets.  She filled the goblets, and gave one of them to me.  The ice cold drink was sweet, and seemed to be a combination of milk and honey.


            She filled the goblet once more when I had finished, and then smiled.


            "What is your name warrior?"


            "Clay, Clayton Grey.  I am from America, far across the sea."


            "How came you here?"


            "The king of my land of my land has many enemies.  They chased me into the desert, but I was able to escape."


            "I have many enemies too, like your ruler.  I am very old.  Once I was like you, with blood flowing in my veins, warming me.  Now, I drink this mead, and that preserves my life." 


"But you are cold to my touch, Immortal One"


"Yes, like a statue of stone."


"Why do you want me to stay?"


"I need you to do battle for me.  My city is in danger.  My enemies are always at my gates."


She took another drink, and smiled. "You are not here by accident, Warrior.  I set the Mirage in your path, when your winged chariot fell.  It drew you to me."


            "Then, I called my sister to send you to me.  I sent an envoy, a prince of my city - the man at the temple in the city, with the sword set with diamonds."


"I wish to return to my own land, My Lady."


"No, you will remain with me.  You will serve me - you have many battles before you."  She rose, and folded her arms.   "I am Astarte, the Immortal."


            "How long have you ruled this city?"


            "I have been here for many thousands of years."


            "You were a goddess in my world, long ago."


            "I dwelt in your world for a time.  My people seeded your world with life, long ago.  We molded you in our image, caused you to share our own flesh.  But now your world knows me not."


            "Where were you born, Immortal One?"


            "My world, the world of my birth,  has fallen into ruin.  Shadows stalk the cities now."


            "Is your world empty now?"


            "A few of my people still remain.  I visit the cities of my youth from time to time."


            "Is the distance far?"


            "The world is distant.  My fleet is swift, and my ships carry me there, in but a day."







*  *  *    *  *  *    *  *  *









            The day was spent in exploration of her palace.  There was a huge banquet hall, in a building of vast empty rooms.


Astarte led me thru stately halls filled with long tables and divans covered in silk.  There were statues in alcoves.  Paintings and tapestries lined the walls.  There was a vast room with many large fountains, with water falling in cascades into pools.


            We entered another large hall, filled with golden po

ols fed by gold and silver fountains. We were joined by three women with raven hair.  The women helped me remove my garb, and led me into one of the pools.  A large fountain bubbled at the side of the pool.  The women joined me in the pool.  Astarte sat on a chair by the side.


            One of the girls in the pool embraced me, biting my neck.  Astarte smiled.


            "My slaves hunger for your warm blood!"


            The other women joined the first in her play.


            After more of this game one of the women led me to a table near the pool.


            I was joined by the Goddess as I reclined on the table.  She sat down on a table next to mine.  The women from the pool gave us goblets of the nectar favored by Astarte.


            As the Goddess watched the women began to oil my body.  The women chattered as they ministered to me.  Astarte rose, and joined the other women in their game.


            "You are fortunate indeed warrior.  A queen serves you after your bath."


            I sat up on the side of the platform.  The Queen gave me a towel.  After I had finished with the towel, she gave me a new tunic, and helped me to pull it over my head.


            The lady folded her arms.  "You are my champion, mortal.  You shall command all who serve here."


She dug her nails into my chest.  I grasped her wrist.


"A tigress must be careful of her claws."


"You even rule me, warrior!"


"How long has your city been here, in the desert?"


"It was here before any men came into the land, warrior.  Once the desert was covered with grass, and streams ran from the hills. The gazen ruled then.  Once they drove herds of beasts, and were like unto men in many ways. The city was once filled with my race.  Most of them have died, one by one.  Only a few of us have lived until today."


"But Astarte herself may live forever?"


"Unless my enemies slay me."


            "Enemies?  Who are your enemies, My Lady?"


            "My brother leads my enemies.  He wants to rule in this city.  He wants to rule everywhere."


            "Could he?"


            "I have great power.  If I wished, I could destroy him.  But  I give him life as long as I may."


            "You show him mercy."


            "I do not want to destroy a man of my blood.  His death would be the end of an age."


            "I am the goddess.  I am the object of worship.  I have the power to govern all of the cities.  But I do not want to command. I could rule as queen in many worlds - but I will not."


            "But all pay you homage as overlord."


            "I am the object of worship in the temples.  I give commands to the rulers as I please."


            "But you are a demigod warrior, as will be our children.  You will do battle, and build an empire.  You must prove yourself worthy of the love of a Goddess!"


            "Then, you plan bear a new race of demigods, my lady." 


The woman placed her hand on my chest.  She raked my skin gently, in answer. 


"But your legions bear spears only."


            "If weapons of power were to be used freely, the world would be ravaged.  I make the laws that rule this world, and all must follow them.  The weapon in your pack is now useless to you."


            "Then all this is the will of the gods."


            "The laws are graven on stone, my sweet boy."


            "And the days of cold steel have returned."


            The woman knelt at my feet, pulling me close.  "My sweet one.  You have one of the immortals at your feet.  You command even me."


            She took my hand, and placed it against her check.  "You make me feel as I did long ago, dear one.  Your blue eyes are so beautiful.  Take me to your apartments, my darling."       



* * *



            I took the lady to my rooms.  She sent her court ladies from the room.  The woman poured a glass of wine, and gave it to me.


            "Are you brave, warrior?  You are alone with a goddess."


            I walked to her side, and placed my hand on her flank.  The Lady opened my tunic, and bite my neck, drawing blood.


            "No, no more,"  I cautioned her.


            I drew her to me once more, holding her arms.


            "You are bold, fair one.  I command you.  I command all of the world,"  Astarte whispered in my ear.  "Are you so bold as to touch a goddess?"


            I undid her belt, and spread her robe.  The woman dug her nails into my back. I pulled her robe over her shoulders. 


            "Very well, pretty boy, you may use me as you will."  She knelt at my feet, tearing at my belt.


            "But remember, I am a Goddess as well as a woman who desires you.  You may rule me on the couch, but only I rule in the city.  You command my body.   But only because I want to be a woman, on your couch."


            The goddess rose, and led me to the bed.  I lay down.  The woman climbed on top of me, and began to kiss my chest.


            "I will test your manhood warrior.  I need your flesh."


            "You hunger, my lady."


            She sat up, and moved her hips forward.


            "Here, taste my body."







***  * * *  * * *







            The next night I entered my room to find three of the ladies of Astarte waiting for me.  They helped me to take off my garments and to bathe.


            I drew one of them close, and fondled her. She closed her eyes and smiled.


            "You are lovely, dark one." 


She opened her eyes, and placed her hand on my cheek.


            "You are kind, warrior."


            "What is your name?"


            "I was called Zandra long ago.  Now I am only another lady of Astarte."


            I gazed into the eyes of the woman.  "How long have you been in the service of the goddess?"


            "I too am old.  I have been here for more than a thousand years."


            "Where were you born, Zandra?"


            "I was born in your own world.  I was born in Brittania, when Caesar marched.  I wandered into a mirage, long ago.  Now my home is lost to me."


            "Did you want to return home?"


            "No, I lived in a small hut.  Now, I walk the marble halls of a palace.  I was able to send gold to my mother, long ago."


            "Did you have children here?"


            "Yes, I bore three sons.  All have passed away in the wars of the goddess.  But they left children themselves."


            "How do you spend your time?"


            "I spend my days as others do.  There is music, games, books.  The goddess calls me to her bed at times." 


            "You must give her pleasure, then?"


            "I am here to please the Queen.  That is why I am in the city."


            "Where do you live?"


            "We all have rooms, possessions.  Much of our time is free.  You now fill many of my hours.  You are kind to me.  I remember my youth, when I am with you.  I am lucky to be sent to you each day."





*  *  *     *  *  *     *  *  *











            I awoke the next day to find that a rich tunic of cloth of gold lay waiting for me.  I was soon joined by my companions.  The three women helped me to bathe and don the tunic.


            When I was dressed Zandra spoke to me.


            "Today is the day of worship, my lord."


            "Then today is a holy day for you?"


            "Yes, we will give reverent honor to  Astarte today."


            Zandra gave me my sword, and attached it to the belt around my waist.  When I was ready the three women bowed, and withdrew.


            In a moment Astarte entered the room.  She wore a light blue gown. 


            "You are ready, my beautiful warrior.  Come, we shall go to the temple."


            I followed her to the throne room.  A long column of men, in resplendent mail and helmets, was in the center of the hall.  They saluted at the entrance of the queen.  They raised their spears in salute.  They then clashed the spears against their shields.


            She walked to the centre of the ranks.


            A cheer arose.


            "Legion of Astarte! Who do you follow?"


            "The Immortal!  The Immortal!"


            "My guard, I salute your courage.  None may stand against you!"


            "The Queen can do no wrong!  The Queen can do no wrong!"


Astarte smiled




            The queen turned and strode toward the entrance to a side hall.  I followed the Queen, a step behind.  The troops marched in behind us.


            We entered a long side hall, and walked towards a large entry way at its end. We entered the door, and walked into a large circular room, covered by a soaring dome.


            A platform was at the centre of the room, with a resplendent throne, a large convex chair rich with gold and gems.  A group of ladies in blue tunics were gathered at the foot of the throne.  The Lady then sat down on the throne.  The ladies bowed deeply.


            A gong stood at the wall to the right.  A man standing at its side struck it with a large mallet three times.


            A large entry way faced the throne.  The room was filled with the sound of music.  A column of men entered the room.


            The column was headed by men beating on drums, hanging from straps. They were followed by men with large horns, of bright metal.  Behind them were men bearing spears carried at the ready, the points raised at an angle.


            The men walked to the sides of the circular room, and halted.


            Following the men, a large line of women entered, and filled the space before the throne, leaving a lane open.


            When the space was filled, the music halted.  The gong was sounded after a moment of silence.


            Another group of women entered the hall, bearing a blue garment, covered with bright gems. The women walked up the steps of the throne.  The Queen rose, and the robe was placed over her shoulders.


            The gong sounded once more, and another woman entered, with a crown of gold on a blue pillow.


            The woman climbed up the steps leading to the throne.  Astarte rose, took the crown, and placed it upon her own head.


            The warriors cheered.


            "The Queen can do no wrong!  The Queen can do no wrong!"


            The women in waiting bowed deeply.


            The Goddess raised her arms.


            "You are my children!  Follow me into the ages, until the Twilight of the Gods!"


            The room began to be filled with a mist. I followed into the room from the entrance.  Thunder sounded in the distance, and a bright flash appeared outside the entrance.  A bolt of light flashed to the throne from the entrance.  Astarte was illuminated in the light.


            "Conquer all evil in the name of Astarte!"  She cried.


            The troops clashed their weapons together.


Astarte gestured to me, beckoning me forward.  I walked to her side.    Another lady with a pillow stepped forward.  The Queen took a chain of gold from the pillow, and placed it around my neck. 


The women bowed once more.  There was another resounding clash of arms.  She took my arm, leading me forward and down the steps of the throne.  She then embraced me, kissing me on the cheek.


The women bowed once more, and the queen turned, and walked slowly toward the door we had used to enter the room.  The drums began to sound once more.   


            We walked thru the entrance, and into the adjoining room.


            Astarte stopped, and turned to me.


            "You are my Champion, the Fist of Astarte!"


            "My own world is lost to me.  I am yours to command, Lady."  I drew my sword, and raised it in salute.


            "You will rule by my side."






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            The days passed. They were filled with series of rich meals, and long hours in the pools.  The queen told me more of her powers.  She was able to open portals to other worlds, other times,  and other planes, by calling forth her mirages of power.


            She called me into a large chamber, with a crystal orb on a platform in the center of the room. She raised a long rod she carried.  She pointed it at the orb.


            The crystal filled with a blue mist.  The mist began to clear, and a glow filled the orb.


I could see a line of men in armor.  Some of the men were on horseback.  They wore a crest of red on their helmets.


The Queen turned to me.


"They are the men of the Divine Alexander - men of Macedon."  The ranks began to advance, their pikes raised into the air.  I could see troops in the distance moving toward them.


The men of Macedon lowered their pikes, and began to rush forward.   Cries rang out, followed by a ringing clash of arms.


Slowly, the enemy began to fall back.


The mist began to fill the orb.


"That was your world - long ago.  I was old when the battle took place.  Perhaps I shall send you forward to conquer worlds, Warrior.  You would win great renown; your name would be on the lips of all."


"You have no need of tribute, Immortal One."


"I would have you famed as a warrior, sweet boy.  You can lead my chariots into battle.  You can call out commands to my troops, lay waste cities, and then return in triumph to my city.  You are so sweet - your blue eyes are so soft."


Her face was filled with excitement, her dark eyes flashed.


"My queen, you will make war for glory?  Perhaps it will all amuse you."


She went to my side, and placed her cold hand on my neck.


"You must be worthy to be the Champion of Astarte!"


"As it is said, so shall it be done.  Perhaps the empire will bring justice." 


"Justice and peace!  Your heart is soft.  Your world has become filled with new doctrines.  But, it will be as you say.  You may build your Empire of Justice, darling boy."







*  *  *    *  *  *    *  *  *









            The next day I woke early.   My bed was empty.  The girls had slipped away during the night. I rose, and took a drink of water from a bottle in a cooler near my bed.


            Three of the girls joined me, with smiles, chattering gaily.


I bathed, and dressed in a fresh tunic.


            The girls took me to an adjoining room with table and chairs.  I was served with fruit, as I requested each morning.  I was joined by Astarte, with a few of her ladies, towards the end of my meal.


            She kissed my forehead, and used a knife to slice one of the melons.  She fed me the fruit, cooing and whispering endearments.


            She was given a comb by one her ladies.  She adjusted my hair, and stepped back to inspect me.  She found my tunic to her liking. 


She grew tired of the game, and decided to depart.  I rose, and left with the Queen.


I was taken by the Lady to a vast library.  The books were of parchment, bound in leather.  They filled hall after hall.  Astarte took me to a table, and gave me a volume.


            "The plays of Sophocles.  Many are lost in your world."


            I sat at a table, and began to read.  The book was in the language of the Hellenes, with facing pages in English.


            The Lady rose as I was reading, and looked over my shoulder.


            She spoke in a language unknown to me. I rose, and found a man in blue walking toward us.  The man from the altar of Sassamon.


            He stopped a few feet from us.  There was an exchange between Astarte and her minion.  She turned to me.


            "This is the man I sent to summon you. Now he says you can be of no help.  You can only be a distraction."


            "Why does he protest, My Lady?"


            "He will not serve you."


            The man turned to me.


            "You do not belong here.  You are weak."


            "You have never tested my sword."


            He tossed his robe over his shoulder, his hand touching his sword.  My own hand went to the hilt of my blade.


            "You do not belong here."  His eyes went to Astarte. "I have served you many years, My Lady."


            "You may leave us, Lord Aldair.  We will talk another time.  All will be well."


            He glared at me. Then he bowed to the Lady, then turned and walked out.  


            I watched him walk to the door.


            Astarte came to my side.


            "He has been my viceroy for many years.  He does not like you to command him, a man not of our race."


            "He wants my blood, My Lady."


            "He is proud.  I can no longer trust him."


            "Why do you allow him to remain?"


            "If he departs, he would be dangerous to me.  I would gain little by sending him out.   But I will not slay him, until I see his treason with my own eyes."


            "He must know that treason can bring his death."


            "He may decide to remain my servant, dear boy."







*  *  *    *  *  *    *  *  *









The Lady left the library, and entered a hall set with plates, and filled with the odor of food.  We sat, and two nude serving girls entered with trays, bearing food.


            They placed the dishes upon the table.  I took a dish bearing small cakes.  I took one covered with cream, and bit into it.


            The Lady spoke to me as I ate.


            "My city is defended by walls of power at the borders in the desert.  My enemy has been testing the walls.  Perhaps he will breach the defenses."


            "How large is your garrison, here in the city?"


            "I have thousands of men ready to defend me.  The issue would be decided before the gates of my city.  The battle would be in the great plain before the gates."


            She picked up a plate filled with a stew of fruit.  She smiled, and began to feed me.  After a few bites, she sat the bowl down.  She pulled her blue tunic over her head, and began to kiss my neck.  I touched her hair, and drew her close.


            "Sweet boy, your touch is magic indeed."


            She untied her gown, and let it slide to her feet.  She knelt beside my chair, and began to undo my belt.






*  *  *     *  *  *     *  *  *













            For the next few days, I read in the library.  Astarte joined me, finding new books for me, from time to time.  We spoke of the books from time to time, she knew the history of many of the works.


            She called for lunch to be served at a table in the library.  As we ate, she began to speak.


            "My enemies are massing in the desert, Warrior.  My barriers are not holding."


            "What can we do, My Lady?"


            She rose.  "Come, we shall see to the power walls of the desert."


            I followed out the door and down a long hallway.  As we neared a door, the air was filled with a hum.


            The lady turned to me.  "The power walls are under attack."


            She slowly walked to the door, drawing her dagger.  I drew my sword.


            She touched the control plate at the side of the door.  Inside, Aldair stood before a crystal globe, a control rod in his hand.


            The Lady walked inside the room.




            He turned, and saw us. He drew his blade, and began to back toward a door to the left.


            I stepped forward, my sword raised.


            "Perhaps you will test my sword, now?"


            The man looked at the Lady.  She smiled. 


            I began to circle him.


            The man rushed at me. I stepped to the side, and lunged at him.  My blade cut his arm.  He stepped back.


            "You are helping him!"


            Astarte smiled.  "You are old, and foolish.  He does not need me to slow your hand."


            I stepped forward.  The man thrust at me with his blade. I turned the blade, and cut at his neck.  He dropped his sword, and fell to his knees with a cry.  His hands grasped at the gash in his throat.


            "Slay him, slay him!"  Astarte commanded. 


            The man looked at Astarte, surprise on his face.




            I slashed at his neck once more.  The man fell forward, and rolled onto his back.


            I plunged my blade into his side.  He tried to rise, pushing up on one arm.  I stabbed him once more in his side.  He gave a high pitched scream, and fell back.  


            I wiped my blade upon his blue cloak.  His blood began to pool around his body.


            "He screamed like a woman!" Astarte cried.


            The Lady clapped her hands.


            Two women appeared.  Each grasped one of the arms of the man, pulling him to the door.  He left a trail of blood behind him.


            The Lady picked up the control rod, and pointed at the orb.  The vapor inside the crystal changed color from blue to red. 


            Astarte smiled. 


            "My brother will be stopped in the plain.  He will return to the mountains when he tires."


            "How does the power wall stop him, Lady?"


            "His men know pain and fear as they march into the barriers. They feel the need to flee. My brother gives then shielding, but he is not as strong as I."


            Astarte came to me.


            "You truly are my Champion.  You will rule this world at my side."


            "It was his life, or my own.  He decided his own fate.  He could have remained silent.  He could have remained loyal."


            She drew closer, and knelt at my feet.


            "A goddess kneels before you Warrior.  Will you rule me without pity?"


            The queen took my hand, and pressed it to her cheek. I pulled her to her feet.


            "We must call out your warriors.  Your legions must be counted, and all made ready.  The day of wrath is here - the twilight of the gods."





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