I Can't Dance

Nightclubs make me introspective.

That probably seems like an odd thing to say; nightclubs are supposed to be loud and noisy, explosively active and extroverted; not the place for traditionally quiet activities. I find, however, that it’s far easier to examine oneself when there are examples of humanity around you engaging in activities that you are not. In this case, being in a nightclub with drinking and dancing while you are simply sitting to one side, observing.

Now that might sound dull, but it’s actually one of the things I love to do whenever I’m out with friends. I love to watch people having a good time - it makes me feel good vicariously through them. However, inevitably, I get asked to come and dance - or why I’m not dancing - whenever I’m out in a place where other people are. I always reply “I can’t dance” or “I’m not good at it” or something to that effect, but the real reason - I’ve discovered while having an introspective moment at a nightclub - is a bit deeper.

I make no secret of my history of abuse; I’ve documented it in detail previously: physically and emotionally I’ve been attacked, berated, broken down, made to feel lesser - and I was fortunate enough to survive. However, it did not leave me without my fair share of physical and emotional scarring. One of these scars, I’ve determined, is my inability to dance - even while drunk and thus with lowered inhibitions.

Dancing is a state of vulnerability both physically and emotionally; you’re letting yourself be open and free to move with the music - to share a moment of passion with friends and strangers, generate energy and pass it along in a reciprocal surge of emotion. Once they get going, some of my friends can keep dancing all night. It’s an incredibly fun and intense experience and we’re all aware of that.

So it’s a little embarrassing that whenever I am asked to dance - and it literally doesn’t matter by whom - I immediately get a knot in my chest, as if someone had attached an anchor to my ribs and tied it to the back wall. I simply cannot dance - I can’t even try. I cannot make myself vulnerable in that way, not willingly, and it immediately kills any good feelings I’m having as I suddenly have this internal struggle.

I can sometimes push my way through it, but ultimately I simply cannot dance. Which is odd, because I’m an actor - and I have no problem dancing on stage in choreographed moves. Similarly, I have an incredibly difficult time partaking in karaoke - even though I can sing full Broadway style shows on stages. I can only surmise this is because when I’m on stage, it’s not me that’s vulnerable. It’s the character I’m playing. I can push my own insecurities to the back because if the character gets embarrassed it’s not me, it’s that character.

Now I hear you ask, what’s the point of this? Sure, we’re all glad you managed to realize what it is about yourself that keeps you from dancing but why share? Well, because I imagine there are a lot of people who feel similarly about a variety of things but don’t know why. It’s embarrassing, and frustrating - particularly because we then feel like we’re making our friends have less fun because we’re unwilling to participate in what seems to be the most fun activity in the room.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to break through this block I have on dancing. Every time I try it grabs me by the chest and yanks me back to a comfortable place on the wall, people watching. So, from me to my fellow abuse survivors - I see you, I feel you. You’re not alone in that paralyzing fear, and you’re not a downer because you can’t participate.

And to my friends, and people who are friends of abuse survivors - be sure to reach out and let them know they’re ok. When you’re afraid of being vulnerable, it can manifest in all manner of different ways. Some people can’t dance, others can’t leave their house alone or drive down the street. Be supportive, let them know you understand and that it’s ok.


It’s ok to not dance, even when all of your friends are.

John A. Bates
“Senstaku”

Photograph by Mara, 2010

Photograph by Mara, 2010

Dream A Little Dream - A Planeswalker Story

"Starfield of Nyx" - Tyler Jacobson

"Starfield of Nyx" - Tyler Jacobson

by Antitonic

LIYA

The gentle coastal breeze from the Siren Sea blew through the grasslands on the outskirts of Meletis, disturbing the leaves of nearby trees before reaching into the star-filled night sky. Without a sound, Liya’s spectral form faded into the plane. She was struck by the intensity of the night for a moment before resolving herself to her task. First: reach out to sense a compatible host that could be reached before her time was up. Second: assess any abilities she might temporarily gain as a visitor to this place. Third: find out her host’s personal details so to better fit in as their replacement.

She closed her eyes and felt the odd sensation of her consciousness spread out into the immediate area. If there was no one near enough, she would waste too much time in flying around to find someone. There, on the edge of her periphery. It would be close, but she could make it. Liya willed herself forward, towards the essence she had sensed. Over the hill, a small house appeared as she traveled, humble and surrounded by farmland. It was familiar in a way, and completely different in others. As she got close to the house, Liya felt the familiar pull in the core of her being; she was at the limit of how long she could stay without a host. With the feeling of a lunge, her vision went dark.

Liya opened her eyes, and stared at the ceiling. Her entire body felt heavy and ached in a way she hadn’t felt in a long time. Just sitting up took an extreme effort, but she persisted. The room was simple, but felt massive, as her sense of scale was out of alignment. Concentrating on the smoky feeling inside her, she summoned her Spectral Mirror.

Spectral Mirror.png

With a shock, she realised her host body couldn’t be more than three years old! Blonde hair grew past her shoulders, and her features still bore the puffiness of baby fat, but despite this the young girl she had control of had the buried looks of someone who could be a real head turner in a few years. Liya contemplated finding a new host, but previous experience had taught her that even if there was another compatible person within her range, she was never as strong as she could be with her initial choice; their magic never worked quite right, or they would suffer physically from Liya’s presence.

On that point, she decided that it was time for the next step: testing abilities. Gingerly, she tried to get down from the bed. In her current form, it felt like climbing a mountain! With the unsteady wobble of someone unused to the act of walking or standing unaided, Liya made her way to the door. It was as simple as the rest of the building, without a lock or even a handle, so she quietly pushed it open, pausing for a moment to maintain her tenuous balance.

The new room kept the same rustic simplicity as the one she had just exited, and Liya couldn’t help but be reminded of her own home a lifetime ago; a pair of wooden chairs around a hearth, with a simple cooking area next to it, and a wooden blanket on the floor, presumably for her host, all magnified to her eyes due to her diminutive form. Another bare door to the side concealed a tandem of snoring sounds, one rough and one more petite. My parents, I suppose, Liya thought.

The door to the exterior had a handle the others lacked, and her limited strength proved it to be closed. Liya thought for a moment before toddling over to the blanket. Dragging it towards the chairs was a hard task, but she was committed now. Using all her strength, she pulled back on the chair, lifting the front legs just enough to land on top of the blanket. Her breathing quickened by the labour, she repositioned the blanket to repeat the act with the back legs, which would be harder. Every part of her was begging to stop, but she couldn’t leave things in the state they were in, though she did allow herself a brief rest, rubbing her arms and legs to help relieve the ache.

Now, pushing the chair would not only be easier for her tiny frame, but would also not scrape against the floor, waking her caretakers. With no small amount of effort, Liya moved the chair to the door, climbed up to the seat, and reached for the handle. Luck was with her, as although it was closed, there was no lock, and it swung open with the barest creak. Letting go before losing her footing entirely, Liya scrambled down and stumbled outside. The night air was crisp with the chill of early spring, and Liya regretted her choice of expediency. Barefoot, she made her way down the path to put some distance between herself and the house. From experience, some abilities could be more impactful than others.

Feeling both confident in the distance and too tired to press on, Liya concentrated and focused within. She raised her hand to the sky, and channeled magic, like she had done years prior in the fortress of the Knights of the Hallowed Order.


Nothing


No torrential storm answered her call. No gouts of flame or blasts of ice. Not even a spark of light. She could feel power within, she just couldn’t unlock it no matter how she tried.

Is there something I’m missing? Is whoever she is not old enough yet? Liya thought, puzzled. Maybe I can only use magic on Melenas, like I can only be free there?

Which is when the shimmering rope wrapped around her waist, and pulled her upward towards and into the night sky. She tried to scream, but no sound came out. The ground below quickly disappeared beneath clouds and starry blackness. Gradually, her momentum slowed and stopped, leaving her suspended in midair. Coalescing from the darkness around her was the remainder of the rope, followed by an ethereal hand. She could see now it wasn’t a rope, but a golden-handled whip. The hand wielding it led to an arm, and so on, revealing a giant figure, even by the standards of Liya at her normal size.

Erebos.png

The figure appeared masculine but made of stars, with horns extending from their head and armoured pauldrons. It pulled the whip in and grasped Liya in a firm hand. An awful noise filled her mind as the figure spoke. If there were words there, Liya didn’t understand them. The figure shook her in its hand and there was more painful noise. After a moment of no answer the figure turned and waved its free hand in a circular motion, and a spiraling portal opened in the field of stars like a whirlpool. Through it, Liya could see a hooded man bent over a metal bowl on a pedestal. The man stood up straight and faced the portal, and she could see his eyes had the blank stare of the blind.

“Claim of Erebos” - Zack Stella

“Claim of Erebos” - Zack Stella

“My Lord, what do you require of me?” he asked, addressing the giant figure. Liya could hear no response, but after a moment, the man spoke again.

“Mortal, you bear witness to Erebos, God of the Dead, and keeper of the Underworld. He says that you are one of His, yet not, and you contain multitudes. In accordance with the laws than govern, the one addressed will now be divided.”

The giant’s other hand moved over the top of Liya and pinched nothing. The hand then pulled up, and with intense screaming pain, Liya was removed from her host. The girl started to stir in the giant’s grasp, until the man in the portal waved his hand, which shimmered with silver light, and she went limp.

“Now, you will explain yourself. How is it you cannot hear the words of the gods?”

Liya tried to will herself to pull away, but she remained in place. With resignation, she spoke, addressing the god. “I’m not from here. I don’t even really know where here is.” Her words had the ghostly echo she had come to recognise. “I’m just a visitor to this place, and if you let me go, I promise I won’t come back.”

The god spoke to her again, more painful noise, and the man translated.

“Interloper. You have gall to boast of unearned freedom to the God of the domain you rightfully belong to, and His humble oracle. It is by Erebos’s will that you remain here for now, and not condemned to the Underworld which is your place. You say that you come from another place, yet He has no knowledge of you throughout all of Theros. How is this?”

“I’m honestly not sure. When I was killed...” Liya hesitated a moment, caught by a flash of memory. “When I was killed, I found myself thrown across a wide sea of stars without meaning, in the form you see me now. After years of practice, I was able to travel this sea, and this place is one of those stars.”

Both the god and the oracle were silent for a time in private discussion before the oracle addressed Liya again.

“What you claim is impossible, but there is no deception in your words. You could traverse to these stars again?” Liya simply nodded. “My Lord Erebos has a task for you then, star-wanderer. You will be allowed to leave as you wish, if you guide all lost and lingering souls you encounter to His embrace, be they long departed or new to the... situation.”

“Absolutely yes. Whatever you need.

“Your task will commence when it is your time here. This will be known to you. Until then, I suggest for your sake, you take it upon yourself to learn what it is you must do in service, for once your task begins, there will be no leniency for one who has escaped death’s clutches.”

With that, the god released the hand restraining Liya, and fighting the pulling sensation of her spirit trying to return home, she pushed her way into the young girl again, eyes fluttering open as she assumed control.

“I’ll do my best.” she said, her speech slightly slurred by the infant mouth.

“Do better.” The oracle replied with a smirk that bordered on a sneer as the portal closed, leaving Liya in the god’s grasp. He turned in the direction they had come from, and threw her. Screaming from the sudden velocity, she passed out.

“...ka! Myka! What in Heliod’s name are you doing outside!?” Liya was shaken awake with a start, facing a woman who could be her mother. Similar nose, and eyes.

“Wha... my name...?” Liya started, confused before her vision suddenly jerked to the side, and pain bloomed across her cheek, as the woman slapped her.

“I told you Myka, you’re not well! You can play when you’re better, but not now!”

Liya clenched her jaw, trying not to cry even if her host body really wanted to. “I wasn’t...” The woman raised her hand again, but it was caught by a man standing over her.

“Kalliopi, don’t. She’s only three, what will this accomplish?” The man asked with a calm, yet firm tone.

“I don’t want to hear it, Mynos. She should learn!” The woman answered, still with the vigour of anger, but starting to temper.

“And she can do that in her time. Now though, we should get her inside before it gets worse.”

As she was led back to the simple house, Liya looked behind her at the night sky. No looming figures chased her, but when she looked hard, she thought one of the stars blinked at her.

SPIROS

What’s that?

Sure, Setessan wine is hard to get this side of Phoberos.

Are you sure?

Well that’s mighty kind of you friend! What’s the occasion?

...Oh.

I was wondering when this might come up.

Yes, okay, look, it’s a very nice drink, I just...

No, wait. ...Come back.

Okay, fine. I know I shouldn’t be using it, but...

Oh, you mean...?

...Right. From the beginning. It’s been a while though, so I might not get everything right. But I remember enough.

Not like I could forget something like that.

So, this? This all started when I was a kid. Like, about as far back as I can remember. I must have been about five or six, I think? She was a couple of years younger.

Myka, yeah, that was her name. You know her?

Guess not then. Anyway, where was I? Yes, so Myka caught the Bloodfire, and I remember everyone was worried that it might spread, but mostly they'd already written her off for dead, you know? So...

What? Oh, Bloodfire is a kind of fever. It makes you weak, then burns you out from the inside. Hard to cure, even if you have the money for the medicine. The worst part is others can catch it too, so most of the time it's easier to just lock someone away and forget about them until... you know.

Yeah, it's pretty bad. Anyway. So there's Myka, only three, and already in her last days from the fever. One night, she gets outside which is just remarkable given how sick she was, and she wanders into the fields, right? Next thing, she's screaming and on the ground, which attracts attention. Her mother and father picked her up, and took her home. This is when it starts getting weird. Well, weirder. The next day, no sign of the Bloodfire. Like she'd never been sick a day in her life.

Now, me being a kid, of course I got told to stay away, but do you think I'd listen? I was around asking her to play whenever I could! Still one thing that sticks at me. Myka was always a bit of a crybaby, but after that, she was more... with it, I guess? She still didn't want to play at first, but the first thing she wanted was a book. Ha, it seems so silly now looking back, but I made her swear she'd play the next day if I got her a book. I think she was going to cry when she realised that she didn't know how to read! But being the gentleman that I am, even back then, I volunteered to teach her. Sure, I didn't know much myself, but all I had to do was stay one step ahead of her, and I'd sound like a genius, right?

So that didn't work. Well, at first it did, but she was so much smarter than me! She started asking her father for help, and when that wasn't enough, she was asking to go to the library like every day. She tried to get me to go with her a few times, but I wasn't the most diligent student. I had my own goals in mind, even then.

LIYA

Learning to read was harder than she thought. There hadn’t been much opportunity to do so when she was alive, because what good would reading do when you need to harvest the fields? She had managed to pick up enough to get by, but she wasn’t what you would consider fluent. And now she had to learn a new language at the same time? Luckily she could understand the verbal part, otherwise it could very well be impossible.

The neighbour boy, Spiros, kept asking her to play. It was annoying, but she was supposed to be a child as well, so she begrudgingly cooperated from time to time. There was a lot of running and chasing, but after hearing Spiros talk about his dreams of being a hero in the army like his grandfather, it made sense. As long as she could find what she needed, helping him worked in everyone’s favour.

Rigorous Study.png

Not that she had expected to find anything, but there was no mention of other worlds anywhere she looked. Either no one like her had ever come here, or more likely, they just didn’t make it known. It made sense, who knows what people would do if they knew about other worlds besides their own. Liya had seen war over a fraction of land, no one deserved to have that at the scale of multiple worlds. What she had learned among other things was the mythology of Theros. Or is it closer to history, given gods are real? Liya wondered, pouring through countless words.

Between her studies, and her playtime with Spiros and other local children, Liya had also discovered how her host, Myka’s magic worked. The trick was making it work where it counted. Normally, Liya would remain aware and present while her host rested, but she had learned of the realm of Nyx, home of the gods, and its link to dreams. It had been so long since she had slept, it took a few weeks to learn how to do it again. It was a surreal feeling, because she could she herself in her ghostly form tied to Myka’s sleeping form by a golden light. When Liya moved, Myka copied it as best she could, but had no presence of being there herself. When asleep, Myka’s magic paired with Liya’s imagination to conjure fantastical creatures. But until recently, she had no luck making it work in the waking world. Focusing on the feeling of using magic, Liya managed to bring one of these creatures with her, although nowhere as impressive as it had been in her dreams, and lingered but moments before fading in a sparkle of stardust. She also discovered a similar ability to imbue objects with magic, but it lasted less. Unsure of how people would react, she kept this information to herself, resolved to practice as best she could while keeping up her studies and disguise appearance.

Liya-Myka Dreamer of Erebos.png

SPIROS

Ah, my thanks friend. I was getting a little parched.

Are you alright? You look a little unwell.

Okay, okay! No need to bite my head off like a hydra or something! I was just concerned.

Anyway, so where was I? Oh yeah. So there’s Myka with her nose in books, and there I am playing around. Not that I never learned to read or anything, but it was around then I insisted I wanted to be a soldier like my grandpa. He was a hero, you know. The local garrison took a bunch of us in for some training to eventually move up once we were of age. Nothing too hard, you know, just some basic stuff that kids could handle. So this went on for a couple years. I would’ve been 9 I think? It was the coronation.

Myka? Around 5 or 6. Weird to ask, but fine...

Anyway, from what we were told, there were so many declarations and things to scribe that the royal service was stretched thin, so they grabbed a group of us that could read and write, and for pretty good coin, put us to work transcribing all sorts of things. Letters mostly, but anything that fell through.

We were talking and having fun as we could, because we’re still kids, then out of nowhere Myka goes dead quiet. It took me a moment to notice, but I asked her what was wrong. She showed me the letter she was working on.

“So happy to hear about your son, I hope he enjoys the hat we sent! It should be quality enough to last the rest of his life. Per your last letter: yes, Aunt Phera can get Gavriil some more oil if he needs it, but you know her back, she’d need some help making it. If he’s fit enough for it, next feast day would be fine. Bring wine! - N.”

So I asked what her problem was. She pulled me aside and said that the king was in danger, and we had to do something. I guess I looked confused, because she got very annoyed with me and went through it bit by bit. Turns out all that reading was good for something. If she was reading it right, she said, someone was going to poison the new king at the coronation, probably with wine, in Pharika’s name. I tried to get a word in edgewise, but you know how girls are, right buddy? She kept going on about how that’s not Pharika’s intent, and anyone who believes it is going against the teachings, and so on.

I tried to stop her, but she showed the letter to the head scribe who was overseeing our group. He didn’t believe it, saying we were trying to get out of work, or that we were just uneducated children so what could we know. Myka stormed out, practically dragging me with her. I wanted to fight her about it, but there was just something to her. Gods help me, I believed her. She told me to grab a sword and meet with her on the coronation day. Now I hadn’t handled anything stronger than a wooden practice blade at that point, so I was unsure, but again, just something there. So I did it. I borrowed...

No, not stole, BORROWED, I gave it back, borrowed a sword. The crowd had gathered, but that’s a useful thing about kids is that we could get through and around them. From the archways, we watched the whole thing: the old king abdicating to his son, the new king swearing oath, and receiving his retainers in turn. Even for a kid, it felt grand.

Look, not that I’m talking myself up, but I spotted it before she did: the table of gifts from visiting dignitaries. A single bottle of wine among the jewels and everything, hand-sealed. I tugged on her dress and pointed at it, she put a finger to her lips and entered the room. I followed her, trying to be as quiet as I could, but she was as silent as the grave. Ooh, maybe a poor choice of words. You get what I mean though.

We got about halfway before it was presented to the king, with a glass poured offering a sample. Myka screamed out “No!” and then did something. I don’t know what exactly, but suddenly an armoured man, but made of stars, appeared and attacked the tray with a sword that was also stars.

I swear it, I’m not making it up. As soon as he appeared, he was gone. Myka was breathing heavy. She said “Can you keep a secret?” and I said “Sure.” She closed her eyes for a moment and held her hands out to my sword, it was hard to see, but there was a glow to the edge of it. Dark, but still glowing. "Just in case." she said. Like she knew.

Amidst the chaos that had erupted, a man grabbed us, and hissed “What are you doing!? That was my gift!” And without a shred of fear, Myka asked if his name was Gavriil. That scared him, to the point that if this wasn’t a true story, this would be where I'd say his eyes popped out of his fat little head!

Pharikas Zealot.png

“How did you...” he started, but Myka was already calling out, speaking to the whole crowd. “This man is an assassin, sent to kill the king!” The crowd burst into shouts and talking and all that before the king called for silence.

“Do you have proof?” he asked, but Myka shook her head. “Not really, but by his own admission, he provided that gift. That wine is poisoned. Let him drink some first to prove his guilt.”

“That’s absurd! I would never...!” Gavriil started before the king and Myka cut him off at the same time with a “Quiet!”. The king looked at Myka sadly. “These are serious allegations to level at one in power, little one. How sure are you?”

She looked back at me for a moment, and whispered something. To this day I still don’t know what it was, not for sure, but part of me thinks it was “I’m sorry.” Turning to face the king, she said “This sure.” and with a speed I can’t imagine where it came from, she grabbed the bottle and took a drink.

You know how in stories they say time slowed down? That’s what it felt like. Looking back, it’s like a series of paintings: I see the king jumping to his feet to stop her; I see Myka, clearly in pain, clutching her stomach; I can see myself pulling out of Gavriil’s grip to weave through the crowd to help.

She was bleeding from the mouth and coughing when I reached her, even in such a short time. I could faintly hear commotion of the crowd, and the king calling for guards as Gavriil tried to flee, but that wasn’t where my focus was. All I could see was my friend, dying.

“I hate the dying part.” she said between laboured breaths. “What do you mean?” I asked. She coughed again, spraying me with blood I didn’t notice. “Doesn’t matter. I’m going now, but in a second I’ll be very confused. Just stay with me, alright?”

“What’s going on, I don’t understand!”

She just smiled as her eyes closed. “You want to know another secret?” She opened her eyes and looked straight at me. “You can do it too.” And there was a mischievous knowing in her smile.

Of course, I didn’t know what she meant then. But at that moment, and I see this in my dreams still, I could almost see another person, a woman laid over her, faint and slightly blue. Whoever she was disappeared slowly, and I felt a crushing sadness, but I don’t think it was just because my friend was dying. See, I talked to some of the other people that were there that day. Nearly everyone felt that sadness, and some said that they saw the woman in Myka, but not everyone.

She blinked after that and asked what was going on, and she sounded younger. Like she said, she was confused, but she didn’t have long. Another cough, and that was it.

...Sorry, needed a moment. Anyway, long story short, we were both commended by the king for saving his life, though Myka’s was posthumous. Her parents got a hefty sum for Myka’s efforts and for their loss, and I got a good word or two put in for me with the army. Basically, I got what I wanted, but I still feel bad.

Huh? Oh yeah! So I wondered about that too. The “You can do it too” thing. I felt it when she did it, but only a little. I tried doing it like she did, but it didn’t work right. But with some practice...

Yeah, impressive isn’t it? That’s a genuine enchanted sword. It’s supposed to be like gold or silver, but I can’t get rid of that black bit. But maybe I don’t want to.

Spiros Honourguard.png

Hey, where are you going? I’ve got some other stories if you like, or...

Okay, fine. Half-dead looking…


LIYA

She hated leaving him like that, but at least her gift would find its way to him in time. She hadn’t noticed the wine, because she was listening to her god. “Come to me, my servant.” he said, whispering on air. “The time has come for you to commence your duties as my shepherd among the stars.” After that, the pieces fell into place, and even though Liya hated every part of it, that was the only way it could work. She had learned that Myka had died the night she came to this world, of the fever she had "recovered from", persisting through Erebos's will for Liya to do what was needed. Even then, at the end she considered disregarding her word, jumping hosts, and staying around to help Spiros, but there was part of her that pulled her away. Not in the manner she was used to, but in the sense of a job done and yet to do. So she left, to attend her task in whatever new destination would follow.

Once Was Lost - A Planeswalker Story

by Antitonic

Over the sun-parched plains and badlands of Melenas, the nations of Faiqas and Ars-Sara have stood at the brink of war for generations over resources and land. The brewing tensions have finally come to a head in recent months, and many able-bodied men from both sides of the conflict have been consigned to their doom over the squabbles of the upper class who have little personal stake. Between these two nations stands the Hallowed Order: a coalition of knights who alone control mystical forces, limiting the use of magic to their own number, and punishing those who do not belong among them.


Liya al-Amundi looked at the sky, frowning. The clouds spoke of an oncoming storm, and food was already hard to come by in quantity due to most of the season's crops being passed to the frontline. It had already been three months since the king's officers had ridden through, grabbing any able-bodied man to fight under the banner of Faiqas with the threat of conscription. Some went gladly, proud to serve. Others, reluctant to leave their families, attempted to argue their position but to no avail. Liya's husband, Sadi el-Tunar was one of the latter; unwilling to leave his wife and, at the time, unborn son unless forced. For the first month of his enlistment, Sadi and Liya exchanged letters via courier; Sadi explaining the terrible conditions of camp and the absurdities of military life, while Liya passed on the news of the birth of Anwar el-Sadi, their son, and whatever she could think of to lighten his mood. The letters had not arrived since then, nor had hers been received as best she could tell, so she worried.

Liya.png

For now though, Liya jostled the small basket of vegetables she had gathered and traded to a more comfortable position, and made her way to the home of Anwar's keepers, an elderly couple who sympathised with her position and had made great effort to assist her. She gave way and made a curtsy to the Knight of the Hallowed Order as he passed on patrol, but he paid her no mind. The Knights had travelled to both kingdoms to act as peacekeepers in the stead of the war, but many found their protection more trouble than it was worth. They expected much, gave little, and were quick and harsh in their justice.

Having greeted the couple and given a squash that she knew they were fond of, Liya returned home, Anwar nestled in her arms, to prepare the evening meal. The broth was boiling nicely when the door burst open. Liya turned with a start; a man stood there, a stranger to her, his eyes gleaming maliciously from behind the veil obscuring the rest of his face. The clothes were light but well-worn, in a distinctive style that, combined with the relatively pale features visible, led to only one conclusion: a deserter from the Ars-Sara side of the war. Liya made a movement to stand in front of Anwar's cradle but the man was faster, pulling a dagger from within the clothes and pointing at her before she could move.

"Ah ah ah, not so fast lovely." The man's eyes turned to take in Anwar's presence. "Wouldn't want the wee one to get hurt over your mistake, now would we?"

"Don't hurt him., Liya pleaded, in no more than a whisper as tears began to well. "I'll do anything, just don't hurt him." The man laughed coarsely.

"Anything, is it? Let's just see. Normally I wouldn't bother with rats like you, but I've recently... come into my own, as it were. So here's what I need for a start: You're going to get me a change of clothes, and I could use a good meal. As flattering as this garment is, it's a little conspicuous around these parts."

"And then you'll leave?"

"Nah, that's just the start, lovely. I'll leave when I'm good and ready." The man jabbed the air in Liya's direction, and she flinched. "Hurry up then!"

Liya scrambled around her home, not wanting to look at the intruder, but not daring to look away as she collected an outfit that belonged to Sadi. She handed it over, reaching out as far as she could to keep as much distance as possible. A strange pressure was building inside her, as if around her heart, but Liya disregarded it for more pressing concerns. The man snatched the clothes from her hand, and Liya yelped.

"Quiet down! You don't want to draw that Knight on us, or you'll wish you hadn't, rat!" The man shrugged out of his clothes, and worked on putting on Sadi's.

"Now how about that meal? I'm sure I can stomach whatever you rats eat, so I'll just take that."

Liya could barely hear what the man was saying, the blood was pumping through her ears due to the adrenaline, and something snapped. She grabbed the broth pot from the fire, and, as soon as the man's head poked through the shirt, she flung its contents at his face, aiming for the eyes. The man screamed in pain. Liya had missed blinding him, but there was damage done, and she started screaming to alert everyone, anyone who could hear. From the window, Liya could just hear above the pained yells, came the sound of armour striking against itself: the Knight was rushing to her aid.

"Oh, you'll pay for that, bitch!" The man swore through a clenched jaw, before he froze for a second and started to grin cruelly. "Want to see a trick?" he asked, before spinning the blade around, and stabbing himself in the shoulder. He screamed again in pain, as the Knight broke down the door.

"What goes?!" The Knight demanded, spearpoint darting between the two.

Intruder's Ruse.png

Before Liya had time to respond, the man shouted through a pained expression, "This demon used magic on me! She made my skin boil and made a knife fly though the air!" A peal of thunder rang out and the downpour began. The Knight shifted the spear to point solely in Liya's direction.

"For the crime of possessing unlawful magic, you are under arrest by the authority of the Hallowed Order."

"B-but I didn't...! I can't..."

"Cease your protestations! This man has been injured, and he certainly didn't do it to himself. Now come with me." The Knight grabbed Liya by the arm and started pulling her out of the house.

"No! My baby!" Liya screamed, kicking and trying to pull away. Despite the rain, a small crowd had gathered around to see what the commotion was about. The Knight pointed to one of the bystanders with his spear.

"You! You know this woman?"

The woman he had pointed out flinched, and said "Y-yes Ser Knight. And I want to say..."

"SILENCE! Do not dare to question authority, or you'll be joining her. I charge you to take this infant into your care." The woman ran in and swept up Anwar into her arms, who at this point had awoken and started crying.

The Knight spoke up to the crowd. "Let it not be said the Hallowed Order is not without mercy or justice. Disperse, or face that justice!" He poked Liya in the back painfully, with the spear tip. "Move, or be moved."

The rain was making the paths a burden to travel, but for all the trouble Liya had in keeping her footing or pulling her way through mud, the Knight showed no sign of being affected. Faces of people she knew peered out of houses, in shock at the sight of one of their own being treated in such a fashion. Shortly outside of town, a cart pulled by a sturdy-looking horse and containing three more Knights waited on the road. One held up a gauntleted hand, face obscured by a full helmet, like his fellows.

"Hail Ser Kirna. We received your missive, and await the prisoner."

The Knight escorting Liya raised his hand in response. "Then the charges have been prepared and no time should be squandered." One of the Knights in the cart stepped down to bind Liya's hands. She tried to fight, but a sharp knock to the back of her head left her dizzy, and before she could recover, her hands and legs were tied, and she was gagged, blindfolded, her head covered with a sack, and tossed without care into the back of the cart.


The travel to the fortress of the Hallowed Order was far from pleasant. Not once over the course of two weeks was Liya unbound or unblindfolded. While the Knights made camp and prepared food, Liya was confined to the cart and given barely anything. Occasionally she was given a drink of water, barely quenching her thirst, and twice in the journey she was forcefully fed over-salted meat. The hunger pangs were maddening, and Liya drifted in and out of consciousness. Eventually, they arrived at the Order's fortress. Liya was half-dragged to a central chamber and finally unblindfolded. As her eyes adjusted, the chamber was dark; torches lining the outside had been snuffed out moments earlier, judging by the smoke curling from some of them. Seated around the chamber were five Knights in more ornate varieties of the armour the others wore.

"For the record, your name." One of the Knights, a woman by the sound of her voice, stated from her chair. At first, Liya said nothing, until she felt a sharp jab in her back from a spear.

"Liya."

"Your full name."

"Liya al-Amundi."

One of the other seated Knights spoke up. "Liya al-Amundi, you stand accused of unlawful use of the arcane. Your punishment is to be death."

"But I'm innocent!" Liya yelled, frantically. The pressure around her heart had grown, almost unbearably.

"That is not up to the question. Our ruling is final."

"Then let me join you! I wouldn't be unlawfully possessing magic if I was a Knight!"

"Our Order has adequate strength presently, and your state says you would be a poor fit. Judgment stands."

The first Knight spoke again. "You shall be hanged by the neck until dead one week hence. You shall be shunned from any light until your dying day, and your soul shall be forfeit."

Liya screamed and started to fight against against the grip of the Knight standing beside her, before a blunt impact struck her in the head and she fell unconscious once more.


True to their word, the Knights held Liya in a stone chamber without any light for what would seem to be the last week of her life. She screamed until hoarse, and cried throughout, unable to resist in her weakened state when the Knights delivered a meagre meal. Her rest was minimal due to the hard stone floor, so the final day came without fanfare.

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Unable to tell what time it was in her confinement, Liya was roughly shaken awake by a Knight, taken from her chamber, and marched at spearpoint up several flights of carved stairs. The one advantage of imprisonment, that she could tell, was that she was able to see in the total darkness engineered for her through the use of blankets over windows and blocking of corridors. Eventually she was led to a small room with doors on either side. A Knight stood by the far door, a bundle in their hands.

"Change." The bundle thrust into Liya's arms was revealed to be a surprisingly elegant white silk dress. In any other circumstance, it would have been breathtakingly beautiful.

"I don't understand," Liya said, her voice still rough from screaming in vain.

"It is tradition. Worry not, you won't need it long."

Liya paused for a moment, waiting to see if the Knight would give her some privacy or a modicum of decency, but there was none to be found. The dress was perhaps a little snug in the chest and a little loose on the hip, but Liya hadn't expected it to be tailored. The fact that it fit as well as it did was surprising enough. Once she had finished, the Knight spoke again, as if following a script.

"You go now to your end, adorned in righteousness. See now what your sins have denied you forever more." With that, the Knight opened the door, and Liya was blinded. After a few stumbling forced steps, her eyes finally started to clear. For the first time in weeks, she could see the sun shining down, and the intensity of it caused her eyes to water. From around the edges of the fortress ramparts, she could see out over the valleys. It was beautiful. In the center of the courtyard stood the gallows, a grim spectre marring what would have been worthy of a work of art. Step by step, Liya was pushed towards it, every inch of her being begging her to run or to do something, but she couldn't. All she could do was walk.

Step.

Step.

The pressure in her chest had built up so much it was painful. Liya wondered distantly if that would kill her before the hanging did, as a small mercy. Standing by the noose was yet another Knight, but instead of the silver and white of the others, this Knight was clad in armour of pitch black. They were rough in tightening the noose around her neck, and Liya was turned away to face the sun.

Anwar, Sadi, she thought, I love you. She closed her eyes. It took only a moment, but it felt like an age was passing. The creak of the lever, the feel of sudden weightlessness, a sharp pain in the neck, the release of pressure from within, a pulling feeling, and the cessation of sound.

Liya kept her eyes tightly shut for a moment, gradually opening them in confusion. Thick jungle covered the land below her, and volcanic ash floated through the air from distant peaks. She looked down, and, to her shock, found she wasn't standing on anything, but floating, in midair. The bigger concern was that she could see through her body. Her arms, her legs, the dress, they all appeared transparent, with a light-blue tinge. Like looking through stained glass. In shock, she raised her hands to her face. She could still feel herself. Same with touching her left arm and hand with the right.

"What's happening?" she asked aloud. Her voice had a faint echo to it that was new, but sounded the same to her otherwise. The pressure that had been building inside was still there, but it had changed. Before, it felt like a ball of water around her heart, gradually hardening; now it felt like smoke, filling every part of her. Liya tried to walk, but couldn't find any ground to push off. She frowned and focused, willing herself to move forward. It wasn't fast or far, but she drifted forward. She tried the other directions, and the movements came easier each time. Suddenly, there was a screech from above. Liya turned, to see small green creatures riding a much larger one. A dragon! Liya thought. Were they attacking her? An answering screech from below revealed another, although this one had no riders. They were going to collide, with her in the middle! She felt a pulling from within again, and the world vanished around her. Liya looked around. She was being pulled backwards away from a shining, familiarly light blue, star through a storm of purple clouds. All around her were stars, though these were white, stars without number. Then the clouds vanished. She was back at the fortress of the Hallowed Order. The small crowd that had gathered to watch her execution had dispersed, leaving two Knights and under the gallows, in a heap, her body. If Liya could move, she would have collapsed to the ground. Instead, all she could do was stare in shock. One of the Knights made a disapproving noise.

"Scum," she said, and kicked Liya's body.

"No!" Liya cried out and lunged for the Knight, bracing for impact. The sharp intake of breath was a surprise, as Liya realised that until that moment, she hadn't been breathing. She looked down to see plate gauntlets covering her hands, and realised she was seeing from the Knight's eyes. She had control. Seeing her own body lying dead on the ground, she felt anger well within her. The pressure, or smoke, or whatever it was, was still inside her, but now it felt different again, like how a fruit can taste different the riper it gets. It reminded Liya of winter somehow.

"Hadeel? What are you doing? Just grab the body, and let us go already."

"What?" Liya said in a voice that was not her own.

"Just... just give it here." The other Knight sighed as they walked over and grabbed the body's arm.

"Don't you touch me! I mean... her. Don't touch her!"

The other Knight dropped the arm. "Hadeel? Are you alright?"

"I said no!" Liya yelled and felt a push from within. Mist coalesced around the gauntlet as she held out her hand, and an icicle burst from the air, striking the Knight in the shoulder and even penetrating the armour.

"AH! Have you lost your mind!?"

"Shut up, shut up!" Liya clenched her fist and the mist spread from her hand and started collecting on the armour of the Knight, turning to a layer of ice that covered them from head to toe as they stopped moving. With ragged breath, Liya looked at her hands in astonishment. She could use magic now! She looked over at her now dead body, and nearly started to cry.

No time for that now, need to get out of here.

Focusing, she tried to make that lunging feeling again towards her body, but only succeeded in floating through it, leaving the Knight.

“...What…?” Liya heard the Knight begin to ask before jumping back in and resuming control. There was little for it, and she needed to be anywhere but here. She picked up her body awkwardly and carried it to the door nearby.

Was I always this heavy? Though this woman, Hadeel I suppose, is stronger than I am. Liya thought.

...Or was, anyway, she added sadly, after a thought.

Having not really seen the interior of the fortress, Liya only got turned around twice before finding the stable entrance. She slung her body over a horse and was about to open the gate before a voice called out.

"Excuse me, you can't do that."

Liya looked over to see a young boy, probably no older than 15, wearing plain clothes but designed with an element reminiscent of the Knights armour. A stablehand, most likely.

"I, uh… I'm taking this woman's body to her home for a decent burial. Orders from... you know." Liya said trying to sound believable, pointing a finger vaguely upwards.

"The First Vanguard?"

"Yes, them. So I'll just be..."

"I never heard nothing like that., the boy said suspiciously.

"It's news to me, too. Look, if you want to waste their time and mine by asking a pointless question, go right ahead. Otherwise, I'm leaving now."

The boy thought for a moment. "Just watch for his back right. He's been a bit stroppy when you brush there."

Liya nodded, and body in tow, rode towards home.


Liya slumped over the shovel, exhausted. She had just finished moving the last piece of dirt for her own grave. Thanks to her borrowed magic, she was able to keep decomposition from setting in until she made it home. To her grim delight, the townsfolk, upon hearing of Liya's fate, had ambushed the Ars-Sara intruder and essentially torn him to shreds.The elderly couple who looked after him before had been given custody of Anwar. She couldn't leave, but she could never truly go back.

Using Hadeel as a disguise, Liya assumed the role of a patrolling Knight, but always staying local to her hometown. She cried on seeing Anwar's first steps, and hearing his first words. She lent a shoulder when first one, then both of the elderly couple passed away. Her heart soared when Anwar started seeing a girl within the village, and was practically inconsolable when they had their first child together, a little girl they named Liya, in remembrance. One day, Liya awoke and got out of bed to resume her duties, but Hadeel did not. Liya stayed around the town until the day that Anwar took his final rest. He went peacefully, surrounded by family and friends. If she didn't know better, Liya would have sworn that he saw her, right at the end.

Liya had gotten stronger too. While Hadeel was asleep, Liya had practiced. She discovered that while out of a body, she could fly and move through objects. She could also conjure a phantom glass that served no purpose while spectral, but once in a body, would act as a mirror that others could not see. On the matter of possession, she could only control people who had magic within them: any of the Knights or very rarely someone outside the Order. Each had their own type of magic, and discovering how to use it was always a challenge.

Lastly, she developed her ability to travel to those stars she had seen within the clouds. Focusing, she could fade from one place and see the stars laid out before her. She could then move towards, and into, any of her choosing. However, other worlds needed an anchor; she was only free while here on her homeworld. If she didn't find a host within minutes, she would be pulled back here, to her grave, and left to try again or drift here forever.

Liya looked at the familiar night sky, the one she had known all her life, and portions of her afterlife, and, with a sad smile, focused on the stars and drifted away.

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Fuck You, I Survived - Thoughts on Zak S., Abuse, and D&D

CW: emotional and physical abuse, sexual assault

by John “Senstaku” Bates

Fuck that guy and people like him.

Just wanted to get that out right away so both my stance and the subject of this diatribe are clearly presented at the top. If you disagree, feel free to fuck off. Or keep reading. Whatever, I’m the nascent ramblings of a bisexual creative, not a cop. Also, for the record, the title of this is the last time I will refer to that particular shitbag by his name, because I don’t feel the need to have that particular arrangement of letters associated any further with my website, my being, or my works.

To understand my vehement disgust when it comes to abusers I’ll have to recount a few facts of my life. I understand if reading any of the following is difficult for anyone, and don’t judge you not going any further; I’ve hopefully given you p l e n t y   o f t i m e t o t u r n a w a y n o w. Those of you remaining, welcome to my circus family.

While I can’t exactly point to every instance of physical or emotional abuse I’ve gone through, I can sure as hell give you the highlights. As a child with a very physically evident psychological aversion to the very concept of needles, my family rarely missed an opportunity to bring up the concept. Even when my arm was physically locking itself up from the psychic pain of a needle being jabbed into my arm they would continue. Now that might not sound bad, but I want you to fold your non-dominant arm up to your shoulder and flex as hard as you can now.

And hold it there for half an hour.

Hurts don’t it? And it’s a physical pain you can’t stop because your brain is busy telling you “HEY GUESS WHAT THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO HAVE A BIG FUCKOFF NEEDLE IN YOUR ARM AIN’T IT GREAT!?” Now, to be fair, it wasn’t my entire family doing that all the time. Just my older brother really who got a kick out of it. You know what my father got a kick out of? Calling me a pussy. If I wasn’t interested in doing something that he and my older brother liked (mostly car-related to be a Southern stereotype), I was a pussy. He never called me a faggot though, no, that was my brother’s word.

Now sure, being called a pussy and a faggot hardly constitutes as emotional abuse for most people, granted, but it doesn’t help when it’s piled on top of being forced into situations you don’t want to be in and cannot escape from repeatedly. When caving, or spelunking, I was constantly afraid we’d get lost or fall in a pit and die. With racing, they tried to put me in a vehicle that goes from 0 to 60 in a second when I was 8, and I hit the gas and launched myself (in a dragster, unbuckled), out of the garage at about half speed accidentally. I was screaming until the thing came to a stop and I was pulled out, called stupid for not hitting the brakes, and fortunately deemed too much of a financial risk to try it again.

I also had a nanny my parents would leave me with whenever they left town to go do important adult things I wasn’t allowed to come with (mostly racing) for. A sweet old lady with the face of a leather handbag who made us go out and find our own switches with which she would discipline us. I accidentally got one with thorns one time and she didn’t hesitate to use it. Though, I will admit, it was also in that house that I had my first crush, who introduced me to Sailor Moon. So that was nice.

School eventually came, at which point I was diagnosed with ADHD and given medicine to help calm me down. Ritalin, as it turns out, is not for everyone and especially not for me so we stopped taking it, which meant I got relegated to the Special Needs classrooms because they had to have a specialist for us ADHD kids.

Turns out you need a specialist to sit on children who aren’t behaving. Fair enough, I was a deadly little guy what with my being shorter than all the other boys and less athletic. Now, the psychology behind sitting on kids in schools I’m not necessarily familiar with, but let me tell you it certainly feels traumatic to have an adult sitting on you to the point that it feels like you might get crushed to death. I’m not alone in that either - a good friend of mine has relayed similar disciplinary experiences to me.

Then I went through a series of abusive girlfriends, from throwing my own glasses case in my face because it was funny and giving less than a shit when I get trampled at a concert she invited me to from one, to telling me that if we broke up she’d die and it would be my fault because she would write that I killed her in her diary (not that that necessarily makes any sense?) and throwing kitchen knives at me from another. Something about my “beat up geek puppy” appeal in middle and high school attracted a particular brand of person.


And finally we start getting to the good stuff: you know, actual physical trauma and emotional abuse. When I entered high school and expressed a love of acting and a desire to pursue it as a career, I got the standard “There is no money in acting, you should go to college and work on cars like your dad does, there’s no point in chasing your dreams, nobody ever makes it as an actor etc. etc. etc.” ad infinitum ad nauseum.

And my father threw me into a bookshelf.

Well, to be fair, he threw me into a bookshelf, my door, my bed, and my closet, flipping over and knocking down most of those things in the process. You see, my father had this strange idea that everything in the house belonged to him - even if he had no real claim of ownership over it. And so, since I didn’t want to share my PS2 with my younger brother at the time - I love him, but he is the reason I had to replace my physical copies of FF7 and FF8 twice - a PS2 I had paid for with money earned not from my father but from my grandmother, he decided that he was just going to rip it out and throw it in the trash.

So I defended myself and my stuff and got manhandled for it.

And to top it all off, the pièce de résistance, my older brother’s girlfriend threatened me into letting her make out with me and groping me when I was still in middle school. The less said about that particular unreported sexual assault the better.

Now, I know there are people who are going to go through all of that and say “That’s not abuse, THIS is abuse” as if abuse is some sort of Australian hunting knife, but trust me, physical and mental scars can be accrued from many a seemingly innocent incident and it’s really hard to relay the feeling of these events. Hell, I couldn’t recognize much of that myself as abuse until I sat down and thought about it years later, and realized that a lot of that experience built me to the person that I am now, and not always in a positive way.

T H A T  H A V I N G  B E E N S A I D, and hopefully that’s a good place for anyone who skipped the abuse history to come back in, I want to talk about shitbag mentioned at the top of this post. Fuck that guy.

As a member of the LGBTQA+ community, a content creator in the D&D space, an abuse survivor, and someone whose goal includes providing a safe space to play for people who often feel unwelcome or shut out of more traditional venues:  I cannot be silent on this, nor can I stand that kind of behavior, nor the sort of behavior that makes way for that particular sort of trash. It’s inexcusable, especially when - as has been stated - this has been known information for a while that wasn’t taken seriously.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know anything at all about this guy until recently, when Mandy Morbid and Vivka Grey spoke out about him. And then I heard that he had in some capacity consulted on D&D 5th edition, my favorite D&D edition in the series. So what did I do?

I went and blotted out his name in my Player’s Handbook with a purple crayon marker. Even took a picture for proof.

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You’ll notice one other name blotted out there, and if you look in your Player’s Handbook you’ll see it’s Mike Mearls. Because he defended and enabled this abuser even after receiving information about it, and then when called out delivered a fairly weak corporate apology. Do I think he’s an evil man? No, I don’t. I think he’s a contributing factor to a culture of abuse that normalizes the people who are, and while I can’t really do much to him, I can make a symbolic gesture.

Now, will I - as some have suggested - abandon D&D altogether? No, I won’t.

Because I want you to look at that picture again. Note the two names that are blotted out; and then look at all the rest. D&D is a product created by a massive team, for a massive fanbase, and has been used and can be used for good over and over again. From inspiring other people to providing safe spaces for creativity and to work through trauma and emotion, to grow as humans through the field of play. It’s not the only system that is useful for that, sure, but if we abandon it because someone who acts and thinks abhorrent things touched it then guess what?

He wins.

People that want nothing more than for LGBTQA+ people and women to disappear from the hobby and let it go back to what it used to be perceived as, a niche group for “intellectuals” (straight white men), win every time we let someone like that sack of shit push us away from each other, and from the people who pour their heart and soul into making these games inclusive, welcoming, and a creative space for everyone.

And I’m not going to let that happen. I will continue to play D&D, I will continue to do my damndest to make the space I occupy a safe one for people from all walks of life and experiences, and I will continue to stand against abusers and with their victims. I trust that I’m not alone in this.

To all those suffering from abuse, I hear you. I’m with you. To all those who think it’s fine to treat people that way, I’ve just got four words.

Fuck you. I survived.

-John “Senstaku” Bates