Nick Alimonos’s City By The Sea
Chapter One: A Stranger In
Wrestling to keep seated aloft the slippery, blackish-green surface, He-Man planted his double-headed battle ax once more into the skull of the giant swamp snail, gripping a slime-coated antenna with his other hand as black blood spattered against his naked, broad chest. With that, its head splashed down into the cold, murky bog, and He-Man slid of the slain snail's head, freeing his ax before trudging to a beach of dry, black earth. There he stood, a lone figure under a turquoise disc, the planet, Infinity, masking a quarter of the wine dark, Eternian sky, and its small violet companion, the cratered moon, Eon. Gazing back over his kill, he could make out the gold-brown hill that was the snail's body, and the serpentine neck protruding from it, now submerged. The sword strapped to his back, the Sword of Grayskull, whose hilt reaching over his shoulder was the face of a yawning, sharp-toothed skull, quivered for lust of battle, magic fire running down its smooth, steel shaft to his ankles, singeing his hairs. But it was unnecessary. The attack had come by surprise and from below, and the hungering snail that was the death of many travelers, had met its own fate by his ready ax.
Shaking off the horror, as well as mud, He-Man spotted a winged, man-like creature soaring over the reddening horizon. He gripped his ax's handle. But as the creature came closer, he loosened his grip.
The gray-skinned bird man spread his blue feathered arms apart, touching the ground softly no more than a yard from the lone, grizzly warrior.
"Stratos," he called again. "What brings you from the cloudy peaks of Avion?"
The man called Stratos stared hard into the warrior's soft, blue eyes.
"Moons ago, a messenger climbed the cloudy
With a stroke of his hand, He-Man wiped another layer of mud from his body, beautiful as a nude god’s, save for the fur cloth at his loins and the leather boots strapped to his feet, revealing a great scar across the muscled creases in his flesh, from his left breast to his right hip. "What does this have to do with me?"
"We are a peace loving people, He-Man. We cannot aid them in war. But the Council of Azrael decided that we should help Sarnath, by sending you to them. They've heard stories, of your cunning in battle. I was sent to find you, to deliver the plea of Urukagina, High Priest of Sarnath."
"What is this plea? And why should I help them?" "Lead their armies into battle against the mer-men, and Urukagina promises his virgin daughter to you in wedlock, with a dowry such as to make you a king."
Combing a braided lock of golden hair behind his shoulder and running his fingers through his short, blonde beard, he answered, finally; "Where is Sarnath?"
"I could lead you. But you would lag behind without my wings. Whereas I could reach it in a day, you would in a week."
"How will I find it, then?"
swamp, over that hill, is the village,
And so, in the crook of
a river beside a series of irrigated fields, He-Man reached the cluster of huts
and dirt roads that was
Wandering through the streets, He-Man was greeted by no one. Though there were few villagers moving hastily about, they averted their eyes or hid stares beneath their hoods, perhaps due to his awesome size or the array of weaponry jingling with his every step. Children were curious enough to approach him, but their parents were quick to snatch them away. Most certain, he was a stranger, and in these hard times villages were unwelcome to strangers. Two things could be expected of a stranger, that he was ill and seeking mercy, a beggar, or a poor thief. And he did not look like a beggar.
The first to speak to him was a woman sitting in the dirt, her back against the wall of an abandoned ruin, a single sheet of earthen cow hide draped over her. Though middle-aged, lines split her blackened face so that she looked much older. And strewn across her visage were long strands of dark hair, as if they'd never been cut, fleas crawling between them. Stooping low to talk to her, a stench like dried urine assaulted him, and he was besieged by the flies that lived round her, and the mosquitoes that nibbled at her flesh. Beneath her veil of lice plagued hair, however, he could see her perfect, brown eyes unstained, seeming to him as though they'd been washed too often and no tears were left to fall.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"One copper piece," she answered, rattling the tin cup beneath her cow hide, "for one hour." She forced a smile, but it was more heartbreaking than merry.
He reached into the pouch at his waist, tossing four gold coins into the cup. It was enough to buy her food for a year, and a good set of clothes.
Falling on her hands and knees, she emptied the cup, counting the four gold coins and two copper pieces, examining the gold, tasting it. She lifted her eyes to him, then, staring awe-struck as if he were a god.
As he turned to walk away, she touched his shoulder, letting the cow hide drop. She had been naked underneath it, but now he could see her pale, sickly green skin speckled with purple and blue welts, her jutting ribs, her knees like rocks bent inwardly.
"No," he said, turning back again.
"Please," she murmured, "of all the times I've lent this body for copper, let it now be for gold."
He snatched the cow hide up and thrust it in her arms. "I said no."
"Forgive me." She cast her eyes down. "Would you like . . . my daughter instead?" She motioned to a bundle laying against the crumbling wall, in it, a young girl he hadn't noticed. "S-She's older than she looks . . . and she has experience . . ."
"Sit, you filthy whore!" he cried, pushing her down. "And with this," he added, slipping another ten gold pieces in her palm, "buy back, if you can, her innocence."
At last, finding no inn and no tavern, He-Man accosted a bent, bearded man carrying a rusty ho and with the other hand leading a hump-backed, blue ox hitched to a makeshift plow.
"Excuse me. Can you show me the way to Sarnath?"
The old farmer laughed, seeming fearless for what he was. "You mean you don't know?"
"I am from a land far off and these parts are foreign to me."
"I can tell. Still, Sarnath is at the center of the world. All roads lead to Sarnath."
"But where is it?"
"Look there," he said, pointing to the West. "Do you see it?" And there, against the backdrop of the giant turquoise moon ducking below the horizon, there was the silhouette of many towers, like mountains in the distance.
"Yes. Just follow sight of it till you get there."
"But I thought it would take a week on foot . . ."
"It might," he replied, trotting off. "Those towers are taller than you think."
"Thank you, kind sir."
The farmer turned back to him. "Tell me, son, why do you seek Sarnath?"
"I was told they needed me."
"Then be forewarned: Sarnath is doomed! The gods will destroy it for it is a wicked place. A land of riches, without hunger, without illness, true, but those who go there hunger for want of the soul. It's easy to love the gold and forget the love for fellow man. For those who live in Sarnath live to forever quench their greed, their appetite for wine and meat, their lust. And soon, forget your brother, forget your sister, forget your mother and father-"
"Do not preach to me, old man! I have no brother, nor sister, nor mother . . . nor father."
"Peace be with you, then." And the slow turning wheels of his ox cart marked his exit.
With the old man's words still lingering in his mind, He-Man found a shady tree as day turned to sullen night, and with sword drawn ready in hand, he fell into a restless sleep, dreaming of his mother, of goblins and daggers.
Chapter Two: Enter Sarnath
High copper stoned walls walled Sarnath, square towers guarding each end under blue banners, golden trident heads and golden tassels hanging from their edges, swaying in the brisk wind. And at the dizzyingly high archway in the middle, there was a river of merchants, carriages, and chariots bursting from its banks as they pressed, many at once to flow within, as others from another side spilled out.
All was in a state of military readiness when He-Man reached the gates. There were soldiers dressed in bronze from head to foot, with bronze tridents, bronze helmets sprouting blue horse hair crests and bronze shields laying at their feet, both helmet and shield displaying their symbol, the trident head. And they approached him, one speaking out; "From where are you?"
"I am from a land far off," he replied.
"And what business do you have in Sarnath?"
"I was summoned by your priest."
"What? The priest summons no one."
"But I am He-Man . . ."
"You! You are the He-Man?"
"I had been told that you were ten feet tall. You don't look ten feet tall to me . . ."
"I assure you, good soldier, that I am He-Man, and tomorrow we shall fight side by side. Now let me through."
The soldier turned to his comrade, whispering; "What do you think? Should we let him through?"
"Well . . .," the other replied, "he doesn't look like a mer-man."
"I know that! But is he the one? Is he the He-Man?"
"If not, Urukagina will know."
"Then I shall escort him. Come with me, warrior."
As they walked through the busy streets, the merchants selling carpets, blue melons, orange starfish, and countless other things beneath striped tents, the musicians playing their finely tuned lyres, flutes, and beating their drums, the women dancers dancing lasciviously, the rich men's white marbled homes with their green inner courtyards, their sweet-smelling flowers of rainbow's every hue, their nude statuettes pouring out a never ending jug of water, and the copper stoned towers with their many parapets looming high above them, all stretching outwardly in a multitude to the roaring blue sea, which every eye could look upon for Sarnath rested on a high plateau, the soldier spoke with He-Man.
"So, did you really kill the two-headed giant of Abu-Zabu?"
"No," He-Man replied.
"Really? But if you didn't kill him, who did?"
"I don't know. I've never seen a two-headed giant, nor even heard of a place called Abu-Zabu. I think it is a myth."
Turning the corner, the two pedestrians confronted an immense rectangular field in the very center of the city, lined by six obelisks etched with writing, dividing the field into two perfect squares: in one, a perfectly square pool with crystal blue water, in the other, a copper pyramid casting its shadow over the whole city, with steps leading to its flat peak and a doorway leading through those steps to its inside.
"What is that?"
"It is the
He-Man's brown leather boots echoed against the clean, white marble floor of the temple, leaving a trail of dried mud and dirt with his every step. Soon to greet him was a tall man in a long white robe with gold trim and a pointed hat that made him look even taller, lean like the staff he carried in his left hand, a staff topped with a small gold trident head in a golden circle. And in the midst of this man's yellow-pale face, between the creases stretching from his bony cheeks to his jutting adam's apple, was his knife-like nose, and his eyes, black like black pearls.
"Welcome!" the man's voice boomed, a voice betraying his gaunt frame. "You must be the warrior I've heard so much of . . . the He-Man."
"And you must be the priest, Urukagina."
"That is correct. Come, warrior. From the looks of it, you must be famished, and in need of a good bath and fresh clothes. Let my servants take those heavy weapons. You'll have no need of them here."
Two women in plain white robes approached him from both sides, but he pushed them away. "No. I am never without my sword. You may take my ax, but never this sword."
"The ax, then. Servants!"
He-Man handed the double-headed ax to one girl, who with great effort and both arms carried it away. "Tell me now, priest, what is this war about? All else can wait."
Urukagina led He-Man to another chamber. "I will be honest with you, He-Man. I am not fond of you. You are a barbarian: uneducated, ill-mannered, of ignoble birth."
He-Man grimaced. "How do you know all this about me?"
"By the looks of you, parading around half-naked like a wild animal, like . . . a barbarian."
"Naked, barbarian, these are your words, not mine. I don't know them."
"Allow me to enlighten you. Do you see this great city, its measure, its grandeur? This is civlization! This is where man rises from his barbaric roots, and unlike the wild animal, becomes civilized. Here we have writing, temples built to the rightful gods, our gods, and laws, laws for all man can and cannot do. These things bring order from chaos, and with order comes power, the power to build such great cities . . . as this. Sarnath is more than what is here. We mine for gold in the South, have colonies all across the sea, and trade goods with every other civilized city in the world. Sarnath isn't just a city, it is an idea, an idea that will spread to every corner of the planet! And soon, I fear, your kind will be no more, just scattered remains of a people long ago . . ."
"And what if some people don't want to change their ways?"
"We will change them."
"It is for their own good. They are inferior, after all. They don't know any better."
"If I am inferior, what do you need of me?"
"I need you to lead my armies, for the enemy they face is strange and terrible, and fear seizes them so they cannot fight.
"The tales of your exploits, written in our own language, may inspire them to courage, if you are to fight with them in the front line of battle. I know it is much for me to ask. This is not your war. But these foul mer-men threaten our very existence! There are countless numbers of them, sprouting from the sea. For two months we have kept them at bay, but every night they inch their way closer. Last night, they were at the very gates! As many as we kill, so many more come the next night. If they should reach beyond these walls, all will be lost, our fair city, our temple, civilization itself! This is why I sent for help, first to the people of Avion, promising my fair, virgin daughter to their king, and now . . . to you."
"I don't understand. Why would mer-men that live in the sea, want to plunder your city, and with such undying force?"
evil!" the priest cried suddenly, "that is why. Must there be another
reason? Believe me; I have seen them, hideously ugly, reeking of the sea and
gibbering unintelligibly, with no regard for life! They kill for the pleasure
of it, mindless of their own destruction. And for this they must be wiped out,
all those spawned of
Urukagina led him under another archway to a single room seeming to make up the whole temple, vast as its outside and empty, save for the square pool at its center and the single stone sculpture rising from it vaguely discernible in the distance.
"To what gods do you pray?" the priest asked.
"To the winged goddess, Zo-Ar," He-Man replied.
"A heathen god, no doubt. Let me tell you of our god, Sargon, and of the beginnings of the universe."
High above them now was an idol of carved, white marble, a handsome, bare breasted god whose pupils were giant pearls, with hair like the angry sea coiled about a king's crown, and a beard curled like a cloud. In his left hand was a stone trident raised high. And he stood on a chariot sea shell, latched by golden reins to two life-size, humpback whales, though both smaller than the god and his chariot. Supporting all this, at the base of the idol, was a larger sculpture, a poorly crafted squid of red coral, its ten tentacles, crumbling with age, just touching the surface of the still water.
"In the beginning,
many thousands of years ago, there was only cold and darkness. That was when
the world was covered in water, when all living things swam and lived in chaos,
He-Man thought for a
moment. "And you believe the mer-men are somehow
. . . related to
"Yes," Urukagina replied, pointing to an unraveled scroll on a
marble podium below the idol. "It is prophesied in the scriptures that
Suddenly, there came a sobbing from the other side of the idol. And there, sitting by the edge of the pool at Sargon's back, tears forming circles in the water, was a young woman. Bending over her was a man-shaped behemoth with a long leathery snout, jutting teeth, and small, pointed eyes, dressed in scarlet, deep blue, and gold, with a rippling, velvety cape of scarlet and knee-high boots of solid gold. And standing upright on the floor with its looped, leather shaft in his four fingered hand was an immense hammer shaped like a golden bell, a hammer no man could lift.
"He-Man, this is Grimosse, my guardian. He takes care of my daughter."
"Guardian . . . of the same ‘guardians' who turned on their mage creators and killed them?"
"Yes. But I assure you, Grimosse is trustworthy. He has been with us for many years."
The woman stood, cheeks still streaming from her blue eyes. And He-Man noticed her dark hair, the ornate, gold headdress she wore, like a chandelier with many hanging jewels, the white robe with gold trim, split down the middle just enough to cover her nipples, the pink sea shell shielding her womanhood, and the gold chain wrapping round her bare ankle to her middle toe.
Urukagina gestured to her; "Merneptah, my daughter."
"Father!" she cried. "You can't make me marry him! I won't!"
"How dare you show me disrespect!" he scoffed back. "I am your elder. I know what's best for you. Grimosse, take her to her room."
But there was no need. She ran out of the temple, hands over her eyes, before the monster could react.
Chapter Three: A Thief In the Night
Hours spent mulling over all that was and was to be, all the priest had said, and as best he could removing the faces of horror stricken, dying men from his memory as he would soon see again, He-Man settled into an uneasy sleep. His hand rested, as always, on his sword. And there, in that small, simple room he had requested, for he desired none of the luxuries offered that might soften him or honor him more than those who were to die by his side, He-Man slumbered, only the pale turquoise moon gleaming through a square window.
Shouts echoed in his dreams as he was thrown violently into a momentary sense of vertigo, wondering where he was. It was dark, warm, and humid. And then, like a sudden gust of wind, the memories of the past few days returned to him, and he realized the shouts were real and that he was awake.
"Could it be an attack?" he murmured to himself, shaking the dread from his trembling flesh as he clutched his sword and leaped out of bed. But as he sprinted down a dim, lamp lit corridor, following the sound of the voices in a confused uproar, he doubted it was an attack. No orders were being made. Nor was there the familiar scream, unmistakable to those who've heard it, of a man when Death approaches him suddenly.
The shouts carried him to an open arch of bright, white light, through it, the inner shrine of the temple. Gripping his sword with both hands, he lunged forward, only to find the priest and two soldiers, staring up at the idol of Sargon.
"Sacrilege!" the priest cried, waving his gold, encircled-trident-head staff. "Get her!"
Climbing the face of Sargon, with a knotted rope tied round her waist to a hook in the ceiling, was a woman clad in brown leather boots reaching up to her thighs, a thin loin cloth, and her small breasts in a bronze brassier. Strapped to her back was a strange, ornate sword of jade and gold, unfettered by the single brunette braid of hair dangling to her heels. And her whole right arm was fitted with a metal glove with a claw she was using to scale the idol.
"I'll get her down!" the younger of the two soldiers touted, ready to hurl his spear.
"Stop!" the priest cried. "You'll damage our god!"
"Who is she?" He-Man asked, running up to them.
"A heathen!" he answered, "a vagabond! A thief come to rob the very eyes of Sargon, as though He would not see her evil-doing!"
"Those giant pearls?"
All ready, He-Man could see her, clinging to the sloping nose of the statue, reaching for the creamy white orbs, each the size of a human head.
"What would be worse," asked He-Man, "having her take out the statue's eyes or pitting it with spear points?"
"It is said that when the eyes of Sargon are removed, the end of Sarnath is near . . . All right, guards, get her down by any means!"
The soldiers hesitated, watching as her gloved fingers dug into the tear ducts of the god.
"What are you waiting for!?" the priest cried.
"W-We can't," the young soldier replied. "We'll both be damned. It's hubris to desecrate the idol of Sargon."
"Do not fear. Sargon and I speak as one. My commands come as though from God himself. Now throw your spears!"
The spear shot from the young soldier's hand, but fell far short of the girl, never touching the idol, dropping lifelessly to the ground. The second spear rose higher, passing by her head - clashing against Sargon's cheek, then tumbling down.
Alarmed by this, she flipped backwards from Sargon's nose, all the while, reaching for her sword. As the soles of her boots touched the surface of the god's raised arm, she cut the rope at her waist. Then the hilt of the sword became a bow, and with a readied arrow sliding from her glove, she stretched the string back with her armored arm, aiming at the priest.
"No!" the young soldier cried, throwing himself before Urukagina as the arrow sliced through his chest, and there, at the priest's feet, gasping out his last breath.
"Blood . . .," Urukagina intoned, backing away. "It will stain the floor. There must be no blood shed in the temple! Guard, take him away!" But before the second soldier could react, an arrow cut through the back of his head, its metal tip protruding through the bridge between his eyes.
"We must take care of the girl first!" said He-Man, and twisting the blue plumed helmet from the young soldier's head, he sent it spinning to heaven, like a groaning athlete throwing the discuss. It crashed into her shin with tremendous force, knocking her off of the god's arm, and with a scream, she plunged down to the rim of the sea shell chariot, balanced on her naked stomach. Her sword, meanwhile, slipped from her grasp, clanging to the marble floor at the feet of He-Man.
"Excellent!" said Urukagina. "Perhaps the scrolls speak truly of you."
But He-Man ignored him, facing the girl. "There is nowhere left to go. Even if you could still reach the pearls, you'd never escape the city. Come down."
Slowly, the girl walked
down the sloping path that was the rim of the stone chariot, climbed down to
the god's feet, and down to
"Don't let her get away!" the priest scowled.
He-Man ran after her, but she moved swift as a great cat. Only when reaching the doors of solid bronze did she hault, straining in vain to open them.
Suddenly the doors flew open, knocking her back, and six soldiers brandishing tridents spilled into the room. She turned, only to find He-Man, towering before her. For the first time, then, he noticed her, like two shining moons, the sorrow in her turquoise eyes. And as two of the guards seized her, she spoke these words to him; "Voithemai! Emaiste ap ton ethio phili. Min voithas eftoos tous armatolites! Oli xedoun, e'Sarnath tha thialathi!"
"What did she say to you?" the priest asked, startling him.
"She said that . . . Sarnath is doomed."
"More heathen lies!"
"What's going to happen to her?"
"She will die, of course. She was destined to die the moment she looked upon this shrine. No heathen eyes may behold Sargon and live."
After helping burn the bodies of the two soldiers, He-Man returned to his room. But this time it was even more difficult to sleep. The room and his bed seemed small and empty, and nothing was there to comfort him but his cold, sharp sword with the skull face of Death on its hilt. His mind wandered back to the girl. What He-Man had not told Urukagina, and he knew not why, was that the thief in the night was of his own tribe. Her braid, though much longer than his, was in the traditional style of his people, down the middle of her back as was customary for women. And she spoke his native tribal language forgotten to all but a few. She knew it; she pleaded for him to help her. But he would not. She was a thief and a murderer; what good could she be, even if she were the last of his people? Still, a force like Fate drove him to leave. He had to speak to her before her execution. But where would they keep such a prisoner, he wondered, the dungeon of Sarnath? As these thoughts crossed his mind, a young soldier came running towards him, dread in his eyes.
"He-Man!" he cried. "Thank the gods I've found you!"
"What is it, man?"
As in answer to his question, a trumpet sounded, followed by many more trumpets. "To arms!" the man said. "Mer-men stalk the shores of Sarnath!"
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