I shall march through the harem of finite flesh,
With eyes affixed on the eternal spark.
I shall tear free from the chains of desire,
To guide the lost from the carnal dark.
I shall catch the poison arrows of lust,
And break them upon my frozen heart.
I am the one, blessed by the angels bright.
I am Celabrin, chosen for deeds of the Light.
— The Purity Oath, from The Annals Of Celabrin
Ozmer Kalabaster hardly wielded the magical finesse to remove a splinter, and yet here he found himself – the young prince of Amoria lay dying on this stone slab, while the entire empire gazed upon him with bated breath for his miraculous healing.
He was a man with chalk-white skin draped in glimmering blue saffron, a graduate of the Celabrin Academy. His head was shaven, and between his brows was branded the mark of celibacy — a circle with a point at its center, symbolizing the symmetry of mind untainted by carnal cravings required to tap into the magical void. His virginity followed him wherever he went, and her name was Mae. If he ever lost her, magic would forsake him forever.
He recalibrated his retinas to the magical spectrum. A dark cloud of Eroma seethed upon the boy’s body, a smoke of passion’s fire kindled from his groin and suffocating his brain. It was sexual residue of godlike proportions — humans were unharmed and constantly craved the bare amounts they exchanged in coitus, but in all his studies, he had never seen this magnitude of Eroma. Not since he had declared the Purity Oath. It could only have begotten from a creature not human, a creature utterly sexual.
Love sickness, Ozmer thought gravely. Such a terrible way to die.
He caught the acrid gaze of the Empress Ka’ella, ensconced upon her vine-sculpted throne of jade. Her people believed she was an avatar of the supreme goddess, and for just reason — in her brief reign, she had already conquered the neighboring twenty kingdoms, gilded the city in gold, and mated with five thousand men. Then sacrificed them. “The Mantis Queen,” her fearful followers whispered. Yet she bore only this one son. The eyes of the phallic guards drew to her like invisible vectors of devotion.
She waved the scepter. “You see him. Now heal him.”
Ozmer’s spirit was in great disharmony. What was the Grand Master thinking when he sent him on this suicidal quest? When the empress secretly approached the Celabrin Academy, there were at least seven students with five stripes who would gladly accept this challenge. Why Ozmer, a mere fledgling with a single stripe across his breast?
“This is the worst case of love sickness I have ever seen,” he said to Mae, perched on his shoulder. “If only it were cancer, or plague, something curable. His every cell is infected with Eroma. Magic is useless against this.”
Her opalescent eyes blazed passionately. “Then what better way for you to show these people see the error of their ways?” said Mae from her perch on his shoulder, twitched her whiskers.
Ozmer released an acquiescent sigh. His virginity leapt onto the prince’s chest, dematerialized into a sapphire flame, appeared to melt through his flesh as she projected herself from the physical plane into his astral body.
This is a test, he realized. The Grand Master would not have sent me, unless he believed I am exceptional. His heartbeat steadied. His breath tapered.
Ozmer flourished his hands out from the folds of his robes. His fingers flashed. Phosphorescent orbs shone on his fingertips. He traced the healing rune, fingers trailing threads of watery luminescence.
The boy’s chest heaved, his limbs flailed. Strands of light swam around the rune, coalesced, and beamed into the boy’s body. A blinding flash drained every magical particle from his spirit.
He was sprawled on the mosaic. When he looked again, he dismayed as the boy spluttered and coughed in paroxysms. “Your hair was like flaxen gold, your lips like clovers laden with the dew…” then fell back into his tortured sleep.
Mae rematerialized on his shoulder. She was shivering. “I’m sorry. The Eroma inside him is so powerful it cast me out, like hitting a wall.”
Ka’ella drew herself up and towered, shadowed by the fire of the braziers. The crown slipped from her hair. “What happened? Why didn’t your Celabrin sorcery work?”
He pulled his robes wearily about him. “Eroma repels magic, your majesty.”
Eroma electrified the Empress’ shape. It was enough to interrupt the strongest thoughts of a man, but Ozmer was a Celabrin, fortunate to be immune. “What else is there to be done?” she demanded.
“He will need to recover his virginity.”
The Empress scowled. Her cloud of Eroma flashed like a thunderhead. “No one in my realm possesses one of those… demons…” She glared at Mae so viciously she squeaked and scurried beneath his robes. Ozmer cradled Mae tenderly.
The Empress regarded him disdainfully. “Why does he need his … what is it called, his virginity?”
Ozmer was stunned — was it unheard of among Amorians to possess a thing that belonged to you and no one else, to be a complete self without the contamination of another self? He glanced at the unconscious prince. He cared nothing for the boy, even less than nothing for this doomed kingdom of Amoria. No gold, no fame, no promise moved him. He was bound by his honor as a Celabrin to employ magic for the good of the mundane.
“His virginity, like mine, was his lifeforce until it was taken. By natural laws, it is absolutely impossible to gain a virginity once it has been lost. But magic can bend laws. What has been lost, I will find again. When I return with the boy’s virginity, he cannot lose it again. Ever.”
Her crown slipped again. “My son,” she said, at last dropping her royal “we.” She began to pace. “My precious son. You mean he can never know the pleasure of his marriage bed? You presume I wish to give him life again, only to live it tormented by solitude? He will have to be locked up. He may not even allowed to lay eyes upon women… unless he also loves men, which then…”
The Celabrin folded his hands sagely. “If it is of any console to these grievous circumstances, he experienced his pleasure once, has he not? He can remember it through all his days. Happiness, so we Celabrin say, is not experienced, but remembered.”
“That is even worse,” she cried, nails scraping the throne. “Bearing the true knowledge of what he will never have again will only stoke his torment, not sooth it.”
“He will find his significance in something else, besides a lover,” he said, and he turned to the towering oak doors.
The two phallic guards snapped their spears in his way.
Her voice crept across the chamber, chilled his neck. “Now I see. This is one of your Celabrin tricks, isn’t it?”
He turned, glared across the chamber with piercing outrage. “What happened to your virginity, Ka’ella?” Ozmer cried. “You were among the white-robed priestesses of Amoria. Why did you and your subjects forsake the way of Celabriel?”
“You think you are pure enough to judge me?” she seethed, above the sudden fluttering of drawn swords, smooth as a breeze in the branches. Ozmer dipped into a rigid pose, regarded the assembled adversaries, calculations behind cold eyes.
Ka’ella scanned her legions, smiled. A sensuous sigh drifted from her lofty height. “Ah, one hundred royal champions, and you don’t even have a sword. This won’t be fair at all.”
He smirked. “Swords are phallic and dull. Magic, however–” and his palms crackled with blue electricity. “–is the ultimate weapon.”
Ka’ella sneered at the rebuttal, thrashed her scepter. “Annihilate him.”
The foliage of swords dipped. The horde drew in like a tide. Mae prowled at his side, her fur bristling, hissing.
This would be interesting.
As a score of steel tips thrust into the epicenter, two silver embers scorched from his skull, and he flung himself into the ramparts of plate and leather and flesh, blasted into a blinding blue cyclone. Warriors at the vanguard were tossed. Those further out recoiled, choking in astonishment. As men were engulfed by the sapphire storm they clutched their bellies and necks, spilling blood from wounds that seemed to split open themselves, while limbs and heads dropped of their own volition.
He was the hurricane of Heaven, the judging hand of Celabriel. Blades bounded in shattered fragments from his galvanized skin. His fists and feet tore limbs and cast helmets off in stunning arcs. He looked for Mae, then laughed. The fools barely found her before her teeth tore their necks into crimson geysers.
Then his blue beams flew past nothing and his limbs swung in the air. The remaining warriors had withdrawn. He scanned their ranks in confusion, nearly derided them for their cowardice, when there came a soft applause from the direction of Ka’ella’s throne. He turned his eyes, and he fell pale.
The Empress had shed her mantle, and she stood all but bare. Eroma was circulating around her form — she wielded total mastery over it. “What’s wrong?” she said, laughed.
The platinum fumes died from his eyes. He raised his palm to incinerate her with a magic beam, only to stare at his neutralized hand with dread.
Cruel laughter. “Not so mighty now, are you?” She stepped down from the throne, tantalizing with one leg after the other.
As she approached, he reached with his mind, frantically attempted to tap the magical void, but the woman’s fantastical countenance barred his will from the source of his powers like a beautiful wall. My eyes! Why can’t I close or move my eyes?
Mae’s voice echoed in his head. She’s changed the rules. You need to fight this in the arena of your mind. See through Eroma’s illusion.
“I don’t understand,” he said, as her hand drew a swiveled dagger from her hip. At the edges of his captive gaze, tendrils of Eroma coiled around him, pulling him, urging him.
The solution occurred to him — if he could not avert his sight, then he would intensify it. Ozmer ceased struggling to blind herself to her beauty, and honed his perceptions to see through Eroma’s facade, beyond the mass of flesh emitting coaxing words, to the soul which it housed where the truth lied.
Before him was an aberration, twitching antennae, thrashing tentacles, belly carved open into a slobbering mouth. The true form of a succubus. The one, he grotesquely surmised, that might have robbed the prince of his virginity.
His eyes fell on a stained glass window. It depicted Celabriel soaring over a topaz pool, driving out the unworthy with a flaming sword. He broke into a dash. The thing that was not Ka’ella screamed. Ozmer jumped, Mae leaped into his arms, and he hurled himself.
Plunging in the midst of raining glass, the infernal beauty fled his mind. Magic unleashed within him like a newborn star, and he was bending his field of gravity, weaving a translucent shield against the razor shower. For the first time in years, he smiled.
It was good to be free.
Ozmer touched down gently onto the emerald lawn of the courtyard. After the thunder of battle and the stench of blood, the soft gurgle of ornate fountains and the sweetness of lilies restored him to harmony.
Mae jumped from his arms, prowled purposefully across the turf. “Sedya’s virginity is still alive. I can feel its presence, though it is vague and very distant. If we find it in time, there may be hope yet.”
“Why should we?” said Ozmer. “The country is now ruled by a demon, and these people are abominations before the sight of Celabriel. It is not the Amoria I once loved. They deserve to die, for all I care.”
She bore her teeth, appalled. “Because if we don’t act, that dying child will be a casualty in a war he has no part in — the war between Eroma and magic. Our pledge is to vanquish Eroma. This is one battle, small it may appear, in the greater war.”
Ozmer sighed. “You always catch me with the Purity Oath. Let’s go.”
He wove a sign with magic-charged hands and at once he and his virginity became unnoticeable. They strode across guarded hedges and flowered parapets. The eyes of the guards gazed through him. A servant wandered around him. The spell was such that even if he pushed someone onto the ground, the victim would think he had tripped on his own feet. This pleased him — if he were spotted, the Empress would not flinch to have him hung by his genitals. He silently revised his earlier theories of maternal bonding.
Ozmer smiled mirthfully, stroked Mae from her head to tail. He loved his virginity. She was part of him, he a part of her. For was it not written in the ancient Annals of Celabrin that the magical bond between a Celabrin and his virginity was the same force that tied the smallest atoms and the greatest stars in harmony? Even Eroma paled in perfect nature — it was a counterfeit force, yet it proliferated in every aspect of human life. Strange, how every man and woman in every land he crossed foolishly believed Eroma was that force which held the universe together. It would never break his friendship with Mae.
Memories harkened to the hour of his Awakening, the final trial of every student of the Celabrin. Forty nights did he sit in the lotus upon the hill of the sacred fig, in view of the Academy from where his masters cast him, forbidden to return until he shone bright with the radiance of magic. Forty nights did the stars speak their secret names. Forty nights did he wander in the mad dreams of emaciation.
Forty nights did those three succubae appear and tempt him.
In voices bright as sunlight, they played among the lilies and star bugs, and they sang sweet promises. Forever would they love him. Forever would they dance with him. Rise up. Come down. Be wtih us. Slake your thirst, feed your hunger. Every temptation they tried, but they entered not into the protective circle of his presence.
Ozmer’s eyes were sealed, and the teachings of the masters would ring in his mind. The eyes are the gates under siege; let them not enter and take captive from you the powers of the ancient angels. Were he to see the daughters, he was damned. Victory would be theirs. As dawn broke upon the meadow, the voices faded, and an angel attended to his needs.
On the final night, a command from the divine overseers of the Celabrin’s trial permitted the daughters to break through his radiant barrier. Every caress was a battering ram, every kiss a fiery arrow. Sweat poured down his temples like boiling tar dumped from ramparts. The morning would never arrive, he thought.
Then Ozmer laughed. He drew himself up from the lotus, and he flared with magic until he became a new dawn. The Purity Oath beamed from his lips.
When he opened his eyes, they were gone.
He stared down on himself as he staggered across the wet grass, collapsed. When he looked up again, his virginity sat vigilant beside him. Her gold pelt sparkled, her eyes shone like supernovas. You were here all along, spoke a voice in his mind.
There lingered in his heart a faint fear. For under his new shield of magic, he was aware of the weakness. For those forty nights, he had wanted to open his eyes. In his dreams, he found himself back beneath the sacred fig, and each time he failed and gazed at the forms of lust, though he never remembered them upon awakening. Desire was present, where he had once thought it would vanish. This was the end of a battle, he realized gravely, but the war against Eroma would rage on and on.
So long as they stayed together, he and Mae were all-powerful, uncontainable.
In the heart of the city, the bronze statue of the empire’s brazen goddess loomed among the spiral minarets and domes of the city: breasts great as buttresses, hips lofty as ramparts, crimson lips that would devour armies of men and horses if life were breathed into them. What a disgusting idol, he thought, and pitied the citizens of Amoria. He had only heard of the conjoined grotesqueries performed at the deity’s gargantuan feet, and had no wish to linger and see the nocturnal spectacle for himself.
Ozmer had studied the Eroticomicon for himself before his arrival in Amoria. Their sacred book was filled with the myths of their goddess and ancient love poetry. To the Celabrin they were gibberish at their mildest, madness at their very worst. He had been very careful with the Eroticomicon — those verses could curse a Celabrin if the one who uttered them were powerfully charged with Eroma.
He learned this goddess, according to the holiest myth of the Eroticomicon, had once incarnated as a human woman in an eon long past, though the oracles knew not why — to flee from Heaven, or to seek out a worthy human lover, or, as far as Ozmer was concerned, as a cosmic joke on the mortal world. Her beauty was so great that it brought the nations to a war that destroyed all life upon the earth. Continents sunk into the sea. Forests were blasted into deserts. Whole kingdoms were eradicated, whose ruins still lie in the wilderness, haunted by the ghosts of unsatiated lust. In the end, the angels themselves intervened.
That was why the Celabrin did his work — they were the only ones who could stop the power of Eroma from wreaking another apocalypse, which would inevitably occur if the Amorians continued to sacrifice to the goddess. A huddle of women passed him, bare to the buttocks, laughing, eyes painted in rainbows, feathered gowns and strutting like peacocks, aspiring to that amorous archetype. He spat on their feet. They did not look up at him.
And as Ozmer gazed through the crowds, he was astonished that absolutely no one had their virginity. Not even the children who circled him, danced and jeered at him, and threw rocks as Mae.
“I could burst your brains like eggs without even touching you!” Ozmer snarled. They fled into an alley.
Even the children were without virginities. Oh, what unspeakable perversions must have been committed upon them, then taught to them as mere pleasures of nature. The thought sickened him.
The entrance to the harem was carved in the pedestal and flanked by phallic pillars. Three sacred prostitutes lingered in their transparent gauze, awaiting their confessors. When the tallest laid eyes on him, all three turned.
Her voice. By the angels, he knew that voice. It brought him back to the fig tree, women dancing around him.
He swiftly moved on.
When he came upon the Chastity Temple, all hope drained from him.
The white, angular edifice stood alone on a flight of stone terraces, crumbling to ruin in the wind. The simplicity was stunning — while the erotomaniac usurpers of the city built their minarets and domes with the smooth, fleshly curves of their Eroma-possessed imaginations, the ancient and wise architects of Amoria built designs with innocent minds. In the emptiness of structure, there the beauty lies. Dust swirled around his feet as he tread the flight of steps, and he watched the ghost of his boyhood, a boy with no hair who wore a dirty blue scarf and painted a circle on his head, pretend to cast magic and chase Mae up these steps, and when he caught her tears rolled down his dimples, shrieks of boyish laughter echoing through the passage of ten harsh years. A time when Eroma never corrupted the children.
A gallery of square columns once stretched across the temple court to the vestibule. Now piles of rubble remained. He ran his palm over the only standing column, its edges weathered, and recoiled at sight of crude human penae madly chiseled across its breadth. The Chastity Temple, where once the Amorian queens burned incense and virgin mothers sojourned to bear children, was mutilated. Never to rise again.
A solitary figure sat at the temple doors. One of the chastity priestesses, he knew by her white gown, shredded and muddied beyond immediate recognition. He was surprised there were any left. The large, scarlet cat curled up at her feet raised its head. It was Rogue, the girl’s virginity. At once he removed his unnoticibility.
Her reedy form remained curled, retreated utterly into herself. He heard her faintly, deliriously murmuring the Purity Oath.
“Esme, it’s me. Ozmer.” He shook her shoulder.
“An intruder … Rogue, stop him before …” She peered up vaguely, blinked at the Celabrin blankly. Her frayed hair made her appear feral. “Oh no, another hallucination. Hunger is worse than Eroma-madness, so much worse…”
Ozmer traced an electrical shape in the air, which resolved into a loaf of bread, and he handed it to her. She took it, peered as if not comprehending what it was, then ate, tears moistening the loaf. He watched her finish.
When she looked at him next, the color returned to her face, her skull-creases faint, her eyes beaming like a dreamer who has left the nightmare and entered the paradise. She embraced him. Rogue stood on his paws and rubbed himself against Ozmer. Passion welled up within him. He checked himself. It was purely platonic. Not a trace of Eroma-induced temptations.
“You’re back,” said Esme, releasing him. “By bright Celabriel and his army of angels, you’ve returned at last.”
“You are the only one I have seen who has her virginity,” he said.
Rogue growled sadly. Esme embraced him. “I am the only one. The rest of the chastity priestesses found work in the harem years ago. Rogue fetched me food when I was too hungry to look myself, and warded off anyone who tried taking him from me.”
“What happened in this city?” he demanded, glanced sidelong at the sprawling buildings below. “My … cherished Amoria.”
“Everyone has forgotten the Purity Oath. You don’t know how badly Amoria has suffered without you, how badly I’ve suffered without you.”
“I know. I have seen it. The statue, the harem, all the people without virginities. Esme, I’m hunting for a succubus. I feel as if I’m living in the age of the foreunners, before the war.”
“Oh Ozmer, it’s far worse than all that.” Esme embraced Rogue, as if the temple were about to collapse on her. Her voice was a whisper.
“The Pool of Life has run dry.”
When the Celabrin ruled beside the queens in Amoria, those legendary days Ozmer ceaselessly wished and prayed would return, the Amorians bred not by the debasement of coitus, but lived without the dark madness of Eroma. For the people were blessed with the Pool of Life.
The Pool of Life ebbed and rippled with liquid sapphire in the heart of the Chastity Temple. The walls flowed with watery light, enchanted by dancing zephyrs.When an Amorian woman chose to bear her offspring, she did not think to approach a male, but she harkened to the banks of the pool where she sipped its waters freely. The water planted its seed within her womb, and in its own wisdom assigned the sex and gifts of every child. And the child, when born, was given to the white-robed mothers and raised among the pristine pillars of the Chastity Temple.
But the age of purity was lost.
Now Ozmer stood again by its bank and gazed out with vengeance upon a festering cavern. Rank odor summoned the bile from his belly. This was not the celestial spring of their mothers, but the opened grave of an age of wonder blasphemed and destroyed. Eroma had cruelly transformed this sacred site into a ghastly imitation of the human orifice that had stolen its purpose, its sanctity.
“Who did this?” he seethed.
Esme flinched. It was wrong to direct that rage at her, but he could not help it. Not after witnessing this abomination.
“Three men in black appeared in the city when you were gone,” she said. “They despised women, and often gathered men outside the temple steps to preach them. They hated women because only women could drink from the Pool of Life and give birth, leaving men as nature’s afterthought. It was insanity, but they listened to it. That’s when I noticed the first signs of Celabriel’s prophecy coming true in the very streets — men’s covetous glances at my form, and women coming to this temple with frightened reports of strange bleeding unaffected by our most powerful prayers.”
The serene fugues of the sisterhood filled once these holy halls. Now he could hear only the patter of Esme’s tears dropping to the ancient tiles.
“The day was bright,” she said. “The men in black came into the temple with their followers, and they started killing and capturing us. I knew they were going to the pool, so I fled here. One of them cornered me, and he tried to …” she shuddered, and Ozmer noticed again the old wound on her arm. “ … but Rogue helped me, and he is still here, isn’t he? They were possessed by Eroma, and yet they had virginities fighting at their side, and they were blasting these stones and incinerating my sisters with mere shafts of light. Ozmer, they were using magic. They were Celabrin!”
Ozmer gripped her shoulders. “No, no, magic and Eroma are antithetical forces. Those weren’t Celabrin, and that wasn’t magic.” Not to mention that for a Celabrin to preach hatred and massacre priestesses, let alone destroy the Pool of Life, would be an unthinkable treachery – like cutting off one’s own limbs. Why, then, was he terrified?
She nodded furiously. “They were Celabrin. I was hiding behind that pillar when the men in black came upon the Pool of Life, and they had with them a cub-wolf in chains. I knew it was someone’s virginity, but how was I supposed to stop them, outnumbered and mundane? They dragged that poor virginity while it clawed the mosaic and screamed its human’s name. They kicked it. They laughed at it. Then they drew it into the pool’s pure water — by Celabriel, the fiends were touching someone’s virginity! — and then they forced it under. I saw the man who was drowning it. He wore a mask that was red on one side and black on the other, and his virginity was a cobra. It looked at me, hissed, but its master paid no attention. Then the virginity stopped thrashing, and he let it float in the water until it faded away. Then the waters stagnated, the darkness spread over its surface, and they left the temple as the Pool transformed into boiling, wreaking pitch.”
Before she finished, he lost his balance in shock. A cobra virginity? Zealus Czardim was not behind this — he pushed the possibility from his mind. “If those were Celabrin, then there was nothing you could do.”
Esme raised her hands over her face. “Celabriel’s sword cut me down, that virginity kept yelling ‘Sedya, Sedya!’ while I just hid behind the pillar and cried!”
Prince Sedya. Ozmer’s breath was paralyzed. The mystery unraveled, only there would be no restoring the prince’s virginity. He failed before his quest had ever begun.
Rage tore through his ever fiber. His fists glowed at his side. His eyes were smoldering silver embers. His feet were lifting from the ground. Control your passion, Zealus would have scolded. For is it not a small and dangerous step from anger to arousal?
He yearned to blast the deadened Pool of Life to its atomic particles, to bring down the entire temple in his rage. Instead, he began to dig his hands into the slime frothing the pool’s bank and whipped it angrily into the empty depths.
“It is sacred!” Kae’la reached out and pulled him back.
“Not anymore,” he muttered, wiped his hand. “Let us go. The stink is unbearable. And I have what I came for.”
She paused, strangely wounded. “You did not come to see me?”
“I came for answers. I have a duty to Amoria now, Esme.”
“I’ll stay here, and pray.”
Ozmer frowned, disdained. “Pray then, my friend, and tell me when those waters finally turn clear again.”
As Esme knelt and began her supplications, Ozmer turned away, began to walk. He wrested control of his power, and his eyes faded. He breathed. At last, he knew where this tragedy all began. Celabrin heretics? He could hardly believe it. Refused to believe it. But now had someone to hunt and hate.
He turned to Mae on his shoulder. “Who do you think those men in black…” He stopped. Mae’s ears were pricked, eyes pale with fright.
“What is it?” he asked, then heard it.
A glibbering at his back, from within the cavernous pool. He turned and peered, past Esme’s kneeling form, focused upon the shifting of a strange shadow in the dark well.
They were all doomed.
It struck him against a nearby pillar so forcefully it loosened streams of ancient sand from its foundation. He staggered to his feet, found himself regarding a leering, gray tentacle. Hundreds of twitching eyeballs glared back at him. At a psychosis-inducing roar, Ozmer ducked the tentacle’s next blow, rolled aside from the toppling pillar, drew a magic shield against the rain of debris with one palm, with the other palm sliced the tentacle clean through with a bright cerulean beam. The tentacle dropped and thrashed at his feet, burned away into a tapering Eroma mist.
His reflexes jarred him before he was aware of the stream of slime flying into the space his body had occupied. The slime corroded the stones and crawled with black, squealing maggots. A tentacle was spitting fluid from its rounded bell head. He sliced it through with another magic beam, was tripped to the ground, dragged through sharp stones by his ankle. A blast of magic, and he was on his feet. He bounded, wove, and rolled, but the tentacles kept appearing, more than he could keep count. They lunged from the well’s dark depths, wrapped him in a pythonic chrysalis. Ozmer cursed aloud.
As the air forsook his lungs, his mind reeled back, death-hurled thoughts spinning into oblivion–
—The Grand Master was lecturing. “When Eroma levels have reached a critical mass within a certain area, it coalesces and evolves into an ordered, sentient organism. A succubus is the feminine evolution of an Eroma concentration, very common. A Slatherib is the masculine form — rare, but more dangerous. A succubus is limited to the power of influence, and can be contained and starved back to its Eroma form, but a Slatherib is an unstoppable aberrant.”–
–Esme’s shriek forced Ozmer to consciousness. He wrenched his gaze, paled.
The white gown was burning away in the acid. The Slatherib’s legion penae coiled around Esme’s limbs and pinned her spread-eagle. She looked at him, pleading. One slippery appendage caressed her ankle, probed up her thigh, and slithered into the white garb. Her eyes bulged in fright, then rolled in a confused maelstrom of terror and ecstasy, and she babbled garbled passages of the Purity Oath. Rogue howled and rent gushing wounds in the tentacles, but the virginity was rapidly fading in and out of existence.
The entire chamber seemed suddenly to shift on its foundation. The Slatherib emerged, lifted a colossal, pulsating abdomen from which all the tentacles sprouted. Shadows fled away to reveal a glistening, cavernous maw, from whose puckered lips the otherworldly keening resounded through the desolate hall. Ozmer’s eyes flickered–
—“Can anyone tell me how to subdue a Slatherib?” the Grand Master inquired, brow creased abstrusely as he scanned the rows of young, bare heads. He turned sharply. “You have the answer?”
It was Ozmer who had raised his hand. “Feed it.”–
–“Mae!” Ozmer cried, struggling for one last breath
Mae was nearby, gnawing the eyeball out from a tentacle. She looked back to him. “Give the beast what it wants!” he said. “Even more–than it can–take.”
She leaped from Ozmer’s shoulder, wove adroitly through an advancing contingent of thrashing tentacles, utilizing their frenzied momentum and bounding toward the Slatherib’s maw until she vanished.
He couldn’t take in another breath. A dark tide washed over Ozmer’s vision. The embrace around him seemed to become strangely loving, until the very urgency of his demise shed itself from his perceptions into a drowsiness.
A sudden inhalation. He collapsed to the floor. He became aware of the Slatherib’s deranged ululation, looked to see the tentacles drop Esme, the mouth puking rays of watery blue magic. The colossal abysm mangled its bleeding corpulence back into the well.
Ozmer pulled Esme away, paranoid that the Slatherib might still attack, propped her against a monolith. She was unconscious. Bruises blossomed across her face to her legs, he felt her splintered bones. Yet her eyes were closed with unsettling serenity, and her heart was beating. Ozmer merely gazed mournfully — her innocence was ruined.
He had not seen it. Beneath what little remained of the white garb, a thin rivulet of blood tinged with slime trickled down her leg and mingled with the dust into a coppery paste. The Slatherib had not opened her flesh, but had dealt a mortal wound beneath it.
He cast his eyes across the Pool of Life, searching. But the present sight — rather, it was what he did not see — summoned the burning rage to his fists.
Rogue was nowhere.
In the mouldering gardens of the Chastity Temple, Celabriel mounted a pedestal, six seraph wings outspread, sword raised for the final blow as his sandaled foot crushed the eldritch claws and tentacles of the Eroma King. The marblesque vision of Heaven and Earth’s greatest struggle, through aeons faded from history into legend, was now forsaken and colonized by phosphorescent fungi. Under the archangel’s smiting gaze, Ozmer set down Esme’s inert form.
“She is fortunate to be alive, thanks to your cunning,” said Mae, her tone the calm against his chaos. “How did you know that thing wasn’t going to simply digest me?”
“A Slatherib thrives upon the energies of fear and agony in rape,” he lectured his own virginity while his blazing blue fingertips traced the preliminary geometries of a healing rune. “To submit one’s self willingly is to the creature a poison. Esme couldn’t possibly have known that, so I did it for her. But we were too late.”
The rune was finished, hung over Esme’s body. Ozmer was about to give Mae the command to trigger, when suddenly the complexity of intersecting crescents and triangles fizzled and evaporated.
“I was never suited for healing magic,” Ozmer grumbled, and quickly retraced the rune. As soon as he had finished the rune, it evaporated again.
He turned. Mae stared at him with worry.
“I probably don’t have enough energy left,” he said, haggard. “Do we have enough to draw a portal back to the Academy? Our brothers will help us.”
Mae looked up at him sadly. “You need to let her go.”
Ozmer began another rune. “Leave her here? Mae, you are cruel sometimes.”
The iridescence of her eyes sparkled with amusement. “That is not what I meant. Inspect your emotions, Celabrin. You will see why your powers falter.”
Ozmer regarded her coldly, but respected the wisdom of his virginity, and shifted his gaze inward.
A pulsing crimson chain from his body became apparent. With his eyes he followed its length, until it terminated between Esme’s gently heaving breasts. The chain was forged of Eroma, and it bound them together. He choked with fright.
“You have let yourself fall under Eroma’s influence,” said Mae. “Eroma desires only what it desires — to possess the object of attraction. Like a Slatherib inside of your heart. Why did you even trace those runes, and why do you want her to live? So she may continue existing as a free being of light and sentience for its own sake, or does your heart hope that there shall come devotion from her? Magic knows your true intent, so let it be chaste.”
Ozmer stared at the Eroma chain incredulously. Her words were true. To lose Esme, he had only considered the damage her death would bring to him, and not because life itself is sacred. For ten years, he trained himself to wield a disciplined immunity against Eroma. How had it nearly trapped him, and so easily?
“Is this what the Eromaniac poets speak of when they say they have … fallen in love?” he said.
Mae nodded. “You are only experiencing the nascent stages of that curse. Had I not intervened, you would fall in love with Esme. Always be careful, Celabrin.”
Ozmer clenched the chain. “If love were to ensnare my eyes upon Esme forever, then what an evil thing love must be.” And he tore it from his chest.
When he finished the healing rune, it exploded with powerful light such as his runes had never emitted. Across her body, bruises receded like puddles drying under a burning sun, leaving alabaster skin in their wake. Bones mended with a steady hum. When her body was rejuvenated, her eyes fluttered open.
He turned to Mae. The virginity’s crystalline eyes beamed with benediction.
Esme’s features suddenly broke. “Rogue?” Her gaze swept frantically. “Rogue? Rogue?”
She looked to Ozmer, as if he had not entered existence until then. “Where is he? I … had a nightmare …”
He nearly answered, but as he glimpsed her wild expression he was suddenly struck by her terror, as if he shared the same heart with her. “Gone,” he breathed, raised a hand to her. “The Slatherib took your virginity. It is my fault. Esme, I’m sorry.”
Her gaze wandered from his, settled on the seraph looming over them. He strangely knew her thoughts — when Celabriel comes to judge me, will he crush me, too?
Her voice dripped with despair. “I will never be pure again. I am tainted and unclean. I have violated the Purity Oath. I do not belong in the Chastity Temple any longer. I don’t know where I will go.”
He clutched her hands. “You are not tainted. You did nothing wrong, my friend. Our true enemy is Eroma, and the monsters spawned from its perversions. I have never seen anyone with as pure and kind a heart as you, Esme — virgin or not. Eroma has never held power over you, and it will not now. Remember Rogue and give him honor, but he never defined you.”
Her gaze upon him was strange and profound. She was shaking. “But it does have power over me now.”
The moon was rising over the garden. Ozmer contemplated. “There is a way to reverse this. I am returning to the Celabrin Academy — your tale of this temple’s demise means there are traitors in our midst. Come with me, and we will expose them. I also believe, in return for your service, they could help us bring Rogue back.”
“But you already have a quest,” said Esme.
“You saw them kill the prince’s virginity. He will never have it back. But you are different, Esme.”
“Why am I different?”
He arose, surrendered hope of calculating this intense emotion. “You just are. I feel it.”
Robes rippling, he strode to a clear space in the garden and drew a portal. Through it he beheld bright meadows, rolling hills, and the towers of the Celabrin Academy rising against the night. He stepped forth with excitement. If anyone knew the secret to regaining one’s virginity, it was the Grand Master. Once she had Rogue back, he would give her what he knew she wanted most: magic. Esme could be his apprentice, he would teach her basic spells, and together they would —
— the portal exploded into shards, cast him bleeding onto his back. Mae howled over his body.
“What’s wrong?” cried Esme, rushing to him.
He struggled to his feet, refused to let Esme touch him. If he told her the truth, that Eroma was interfering with his magic and it was solely because of her presence and those touches, it would only strike her with more terror and make things tremendously complicated. “I’m just running out of energy,” he said.
“Then let us rest here. The gardens are safe.”
“No,” he shouted. Were he to remain in her proximity for too long, there was no telling what Eroma might do to him. He, too, could lose is virginity. “We need to leave as quickly as possible. We will go on foot.”
The Wanton Wastes stretched for leagues between the city of Amoria and the Celabrin Academy. He had journeyed across the wasteland once, a boy who wanted magic so badly he had forsaken his Temple mothers and Esme and ventured out into the wilderness alone. They found him seven days later crawling in the sand like a lizard, waterskin empty and bleeding from his hands, by the Grand Master Zealus Czarus himself.
Specters of bright golden dust swept the splintered infinitude of the basin. They moved east, the ground burning under their feet. Ozmer kept a magic bulb illuminated around themselves, a ward against the suffocating clouds of dust that kept the air temperate within. If he ever glanced over his shoulder at Esme, the ward would flicker fitfully.
“You have not looked at me at all today,” Esme noted coolly. “Am I not pure enough for you?”
Ozmer suppressed a curse. “I am concentrating on the spell and navigation. I have only traveled the Wastes once.”
She spoke no further, but he noticed she was walking much closer at his shoulder. Ozmer let her be.
Midway through the first day, while they crested a dune Esme told him something that unsettled him.
“After you left for the Academy, I began to doubt everything we have been told about Eroma. I grew suspicious that the sisterhood was keeping me in the dark. I even wondered if Eroma truly is evil. As I grew older, and the sisterhood dwindled, I wondered what might happen if I forsook the Purity Oath and found a lover — abandon what I was told my entire life about Eroma, and taste it for myself. There was a chance Eroma truly was evil. But there was also a chance it was good. Rogue wouldn’t speak to me when I told him what I truly believed. I was too afraid to try — if I did, I could never go back. But deep down, I knew Eroma would find me one day.”
“Never let yourself think such thoughts,” said Ozmer instantly. “You, more than I, must know Eroma’s cruel effect. It nearly destroyed you, Esme. It is evil.”
They set up camp within the half-buried ribcage of an extinct monstrosity. Ozmer tende the ward, light a magic fire that burned from nothing, and conjured spongy cubes of manna which they ate together, while Esme often complained. But his true test occurred in the night.
While she slept, he sat on a stone and watched the periphery, but as the night drew on his gaze would linger gradually upon Esme, until unwittingly is remained upon her. He studied and memorized every parabola, angle, and dimension of her shape. The pitch of her breath was the constant binding him to reality. Then his eyes would wander toward Mae, and they both understood what was happening to him.
He would look up to the stars and tried to trace his destiny. But the conclusions were clouded, irrelevant, or utterly delinquent. Follow her down the path you have not tread. Beware the serpent’s nest. When Esme mumbled and kicked in her sleep, he played an ethereal anthem from his crystal flute, and it soothed her nightmares. But she never ceased crying out for Rogue.
On the fourth night, she screamed in her sleep, and he had touched her. He could no longer bear watching her pain, he found himself running his hand through her hair. Her crying diminished. He felt a warm rush flow through his veins.
“Ozmer!” Mae yelped. The magic current faltered in his core, and he snapped his hand away. He rushed to Mae. She was already transparent, barely tangible in his hands. He held her tenderly until she solidified.
“You seem so certain that girl’s virginity is worth risking my existence and your gifts,” Mae whispered. “She isn’t, Ozmer.”
“I know. But it is as if I won’t listen to myself.” Mae fell asleep in his arms, and he stared off sadly at the desert rocks, wished himself gifted with their blindness.
When Ozmer awoke, he was startled to find Esme sitting up, haloed by the sun and breathing down on him. Had she stared at him the entire night?
They were walking again when she finally spoke.
“While you were asleep, I began to talk until I remembered my virginity wasn’t here. I wept for a long time, until I thought of something strange: Perhaps humans were never meant to be with their virginities forever. Like toys, they are something to grow out of.”
Ozmer frowned. “Celabriel gave humans their virginities after the Creation, to serve humans as the intermediary between us and Heaven. We were always meant to have them.”
Esme remained on her haunches. Ozmer glanced back at her. She raised her face to the sun, wistful.
“When that creature entered me, it was like we were one creature. I knew what moved its every particle — hatred of all beauty and freedom. Then it spoke to me. ‘I am the darkness in man’s heart, his hunger and his lust. And you, female, will be his food forever.’ It began to reshape me. I nearly lost my will to fight back. I believed my fate would be worse than death. Braced for it.
“I forced myself to believe that I was somewhere else, until … I found myself in a bed, with gauze curtains and strange incense. There was a man. I saw his face, and at once I trusted him. I do not know why. But it was good.
“Then the tentacles pulled away from me as if I were a burning ember. There was light, and it was over. The bond was no longer hatred. It was a positive force, creating, not destroying. Ozmer, is that what Eromaniacs mean when they speak of being in love?”
Ozmer stepped back. By offering his virginity in her stead, he had not saved Esme at all. She had saved herself. He suddenly felt worthless. “In love?” The very words were bitter on his lips. “ … It appears the creature raped your mind even more than your body.”
Her amusement seemed only to brighten. “When I was aware that you were carrying me away, if I only had my dream, and not the creature, I realized some strange part of me …” she breathed dreamily. “Hadn’t wanted it to stop.”
Now he was certain — the Slatherib had orchestrated a diabolical effect upon her mental process. “You’re steeped in Eroma’s madness. Fight it! You have experienced a terror no human being should ever experience. Whatever illusion the Slatherib wove inside your brain, you must see through it.”
“You don’t understand. I don’t want to fight it. I tasted Eroma, and I love it.”
“Whose face did you see?” Ozmer did not understand why he even wanted to know, but he did. Badly.
Sifting sands whispered in the wind. Esme’s eyes were closed, serene. Ozmer raised his gaze, tallied yet another crime Eroma had done to him. “This changes everything,” he muttered.
“I know why your spells haven’t been working,” she said. “Eroma is interfering with your magic, and there is only one reason why. You are falling in love with me.”
“Do not even speak those words!” The Celabrin whirled, and the rage burst. He felt no guilt now. It was his shield now, where magic failed, against Eroma’s coming assault. Esme was his dearest friend — but he would smite her if she forced him.
But Esme watched him passively, unmoved by the magic currents whipping her hair and the tattered white gown. The sun had bleached it to the perfect shade of bronze — Damn! He summoned his rage, murdered that irrational thought. The gown was torn and revealing — no, he slaughtered that thought. More welled up — sweating ankles, nimble arms, delicate wrists — a million temptations beleaguered his mental ramparts. Ozmer kept his expression stolid, but inside his brain he unleashed genocide upon his Eroma-thoughts.
She drew a finger over his neck. “I just want to show you, Ozmer. It’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The touch collapsed him, the strike of a battering ram. He looked down. His palms no longer burned blue. He felt carved out, utterly severed from the grace of the angels.
“I’m surprised you didn’t see it before I did,” she said. “Our childhood friendship? That was love. I don’t want you to be a Celabrin. I want to be by your side forever. I know that’s what you also want, too.”
He drew up his hand, made to blast her into an atomic cloud, but nothing happened.
“You wouldn’t have,” she said.
“Come to your senses,” he shouted. “Eroma is the very reason evil exists in our universe. It is the agglutination of every sin — pride, envy, greed, violence — all in a single dark form. Always another kiss, always another sweet word, but what is its purpose, Esme? What end does it achieve? What thing could be worth relinquishing all my powers, my duty to mankind, and my closest companion gifted to me by the angels themselves, for the rest of all time?”
She held his face, kissed him.
From the sweet fusion of two pure plasmas, a universe winked and exploded into expansion. He floated in the void, formless. Galaxies swirled through the dark, swelling abyss. Every thrust there flew an eon, time tapering and winding to the purpose of creation. At last, he could see it. From the vantage of ecstasy, he beheld the house in which the universe grew — the golden eyes of Esme, his goddess of joy and agony.
They were lying by the cerulean banks of an oasis, shaded beneath a palm, his arm sheltering her slender form. Ozmer’s robes were flung on the branch over her garbs. His shoulders singed in the sun. Blessedly, he did not care.
The rage, he realized serenely, was gone. Where once it drove him to batter down battalions, now there was peace.
He did not see Eroma anymore. He felt it, glowing inside like the coals of a dead fire. He felt it whenever he glanced again at her small face. It was a gentle river coursing through their bodies. The endless wonder he could experience, staring into her eyes forever.
“We should go back to the city,” she said.
As they rose to their feet, Esme suddenly twitched, moaned, and clutched her stomach. “My body. What …?” She was seized by another spasm, fell to her knees. She fell onto her back, cried out in agony. “What’s happening?”
Ozmer caught her, stared at her abdomen in helpless horror. A horrible shape pushed itself up beneath her skin.
Birth, he realized. The maggots in the slime. As his mind made the horrible connection, Esme unleashed a climbing scream.
With one convulsion, her legs belched forth a spray of blood and a black, tentacled mass. Ozmer recoiled. A whimper escaped her mouth. Eyes rolled. Then her head dropped, and her limbs fell limp.
Delirious, he fell over her body, began to attempt a healing rune, but he forgot every crucial shape, and his fingers failed to alight. How could the death of a single human being come so close to destroying his sanity?
The sound of gibbered squealing turned his head. The black squid ripped out from its embryonic sac. It was growing rapidly, sprouting new tentacles as its mass inflated. It began to slither toward Ozmer’s feet.
He stumbled backward, raised his palm to launch a blue beam, but nothing occurred. Within, he was hollow. He tripped on a rock, tumbled onto his back.
The Slatherib was as large as a man when it wrapped a tentacle around Ozmer’s ankle. Slivers of flesh began to open everywhere along its surface, and bulbous eyes blinked. He kicked it away.
Ozmer’s eyes darted across the desert. “Mae?” But she was nowhere. “Mae!” A tear slid down his face. He had offered her as a sacrifice to he and Esme’s lust.
A thundering roar. He turned, vaguely accepting of his demise, beheld the Slatherib towering over his head. Flight was futile. He bowed his head.
Darkness consumed him.
Cold water splashed his face. Ozmer was too weak to move. He was hanging by his wrists. He whispered for Mae, feebly remembered she did not exist.
“Wake up, Ozmer.”
He knew the voice. It was quiet, rich, old — the voice of his teacher, the Grand Master Zaelus Czardim. Laughter escaped him. Ah, of course! This was only a trial performed under the illusion of hypnosis. He would awaken in his bed, the orchid gardens swaying outside his window.
But when Ozmer opened his eyes, he was hanging by his wrists in a dungeon lit bleakly by torches. He gazed as his hands — his wrists and ankles were fastened to the stone by translucent blue manacles. A simple yet powerful binding spell. There was not his master in the chamber, but a cowled figure studied him, wearing a featureless mask streaked with red and black shining grimly in the leaping torchlight.
“You …” Ozmer struggled in his binds. “You are the one who defaced the Pool of Life, killed a young boy’s virginity.”
“I am,” the voice said. Still, the voice of Zaelus Czardim. It was a magical imitation, no doubt. But then the figure lifted the mask, and Ozmer’s last hope in the world betrayed him.
The sad, frosty-eyes of his trusted teacher, the scars and boils across his features, stared with familiar sternness. The same reproach he gave whenever Ozmer erred his healing runes.
“Do you still wish to kill me?” he asked, gentle.
“Why have you bound me?” said Ozmer, his voice cracking. “Is it because I failed? You taught me that I had a choice, no matter how badly I was tempted — to resist Eroma, or succumb — and I chose wrongly. Please, don’t take my robes. I’ll find my virginity again, whatever trial I must endure, I will do it. I’ll –”
Zealus seized his throat, clenched until Ozmer nearly fell unconscious again. His ugliness, once the master’s humbling attribute, was now ravaged with demoniac fury. “That succubus queen was supposed to get rid of you.”
He let go, left Ozmer heaving. “You’ve … forsaken the Purity Oath?”
Zealus spat onto the filth-smeared floor. “Spare me your preaching, boy. I taught you the Purity Oath, and I have studied, contemplated, and meditated its precepts longer than you have been alive. The very reason the Celabrin Academy was founded was so that Eroma would be destroyed forever. But I tell you now, it cannot be destroyed.”
Ozmer could not believe these pitiful words belonged to the strongest, noble Celabrin he had ever known. “What happened to you?”
“I made the same error as you, my boy. I fell in love. But my fall from Celabriel’s grace was from a far greater height than yours.”
“What could be worse than losing your virginity?”
Zealus smirked. “Why, losing your soul.” He giggled childishly, then retook control over himself. “Your precious Esme gave you her Eroma freely, begged you even, and after quite a long trial you finally accepted it, though at a tragic price. My beloved was the very fountain of Eroma, and yet she withheld herself from me.” Growling, his fingers tore bleeding marks into his own fiendish face. “I was never so aware of my hideousness until the moment she scorned me.”
The dark Celabrin raised his fist, branded with the circle but now intersected with a jagged arrow. “I gave my allegiance to the Eroma King, and I have donned the black robe. I would murder my own virginity, I would destroy this whole pitiful universe, if it promised me her love and every drop of her delicious Eroma.”
“You can’t wield Eroma. Your power will flee like mine if it touches you.”
“The poisoner does not drink his own poison, neither does the tyrant believe his own lies. My disciples are breeding succubae. I give them the power to seduce and control the people of Amoria, and in return the succubae — and the humans Eromatically bound to them — will be the soldiers of my army.”
“What do you plan to do with an entire army?”
His wretched face upturned in darkened exaltation. “Assault Heaven. Kill Celabriel. Capture the woman whose very breath is the reason I live. What else are armies for?”
Ozmer thrashed violently and roared. “It will never work. The Celabrin will have you killed.”
Zealus returned the mask over his features. “Then let me show you how diplomatic I can be.”
The cell door thundered open. A woman of the sacred harem entered, carrying a cage. Mae scrambled and reached through the iron mesh. Ozmer’s lips murmured idiotically. How? How does she still exist? Zealus returned his gaze, revealing nothing but cold pragmatism.
“Join me, and I will return your virginity. I will restore the magic bond between you. I knew your potential from the beginning. You will be a great Celabrin, greater than I. I will make you a general, the blazing fist of my rising army. Or, if you prefer…” He raised a palm, and it shone blindingly with a red flare of energy. “I will kill you.”
Death. The promise relieved Ozmer. Wherever his spirit went, it would be a world without Eroma. He almost begged his master for it — then he remembered Esme. I love Eroma, and I love her, he realized. He vowed to fight, to stay alive, whatever circumstances demanded until he gained her again. That is what she wanted.
He reached within himself, summoned his powers, but a vision of Esme blocked his way. He strove to feel the electric current rushing through his veins, but felt the nails of Esme’s fingers drawn across his skin. He listened for magic’s thunder to roar in his mind, but there only came her soft voice, whispering sweet nothings. Frantic, he gazed at his shackled hands and willed to see twin blue flames erupt from those palms and eradicate everything, but there was her face before his eyes, and he couldn’t shake it away.
“I want Esme,” he gasped with despair. “I want her even more than magic.”
Zealus frowned. “Then you may embrace her right now.” The crimson light became blinding. Ozmer’s felt his face blaze up like the surface of a star, his skin beginning to bubble and ooze over his eye. Zealus regarded him calmly.
* * * * * * *