Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dragontales: “Out of the Eons”

The third story in the Dragontales anthology is by an author that will produce a response of either “Him?” or “Who?” depending on the reader’s familiarity with the Golden Age of Comics. “Out of the Eons,” the tale that concerns us today, was written by Gardner F. Fox, the man responsible for (in whole or in part) such comic book superheroes as the original Sandman, Flash, Hawkman, Doctor Fate, and the Justice Society of America. He also wrote the first Batman stories not penned by creators Bob Kane & Bill Finger, introducing some of the concepts and equipment now firmly embedded in the Batman mythos. In addition to his work in the comic industry, Fox penned numerous novels in almost every imaginable genre; sword & sorcery fans may best remember his creations Kothar, Barbarian Swordsman and Kyrik: Warlock Warrior, both of whom are listed in the famed Appendix N as inspirational reading. According to one source, Kothar’s first story, “The Sword and the Sorcerer” is responsible for the lich as we know it in D&D.

Neither Kothar nor Kyrik is the subject of “Out of the Eons.” Instead, the tale concerns another of Fox’s sword & sorcery heroes: Niall of the Far Travels. Niall may have the honor of being one of the few, if not only, fantasy heroes who owes his entire existence to Dragon magazine. Niall’s first appearance was in Dragon #2 in the story “Shadow of a Demon.” The hero would reappear several times in the pages of Dragon, returning in issues #5, #13, #23, #33, #36, #38, #44, and finally #55. “Out of the Eons” is located chronologically between the tales “The Cup of Death” from #38 and “The Lure of the Golden Godling” in issue #44. In the interest of full disclosure, “Out of the Eons” is the only Niall of the Far Travels’ tale I’ve read despite owning the first 250 issues of Dragon on CD-ROM.

“Out of the Eons” begins in an unpretentious manner: Niall, Commander General of the armies of Lurlry Manakor, king of Urgrik, is expanding his wine cellar. When his pick unearths a wall that simply shouldn’t be there, however, Niall inadvertently unleashes an ancient evil upon the world; a creature that escapes from “Out of the Eons.”

Almost immediately thereafter the reader becomes aware that Niall shares a special relationship with the goddess Emalkartha and her human avatar, Lylthia. The relationship is of an amorous nature and this becomes an issue throughout the tale. Thanks to Niall’s connection with the divine, he learns that what he unleashed was a being known as Adonair who once threatened the world—you guessed it—eons ago before being imprisoned by the gods. So long ago did the deities challenge Adonair that they not only forgot he was buried next to Niall’s every-expanding wine cellar, but they can't quite remember how they defeated him the first time around. To compound matters, Adonair, who appears as a green fire, decides he needs a physical body to conquer the world and deems Niall a suitable host.

The rest of the tale involves Niall’s quest to locate something the gods hope will defeat Adonair and their attempts to shield him from being possessed. As a protective measure, Niall is accompanied by the goddess Thallatta, which leads to problems on the home front when Niall starts “paying homage” to anther member of the pantheon, so to speak. Conan never had issues of this magnitude.

Speaking of the Cimmerian, “Out of the Eons” reminds me very much of a “King Conan” tale. Niall is not a wandering reaver, but a warrior of much renown and political status, and his duties to King Lurlry and his queen is what motivates him through much of the story—that and getting back into the good graces of Emalkartha.

“Out of the Eons” is pulp sword & sorcery, the first example of the genre we’ve encountered in Dragontales. Fox was exposed to the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs at an early age and the impact that Burroughs had on Fox’s development seems to linger long after exposure. Niall is very evocative of John Carter, both in his being a warrior of skill in a position of great influence and his romantic relationship with a powerful, beautiful, and ultimately alien creature.

Having not been exposed to the Niall tales preceding this one, I was ultimately left to judge it solely on its own merits. As a whole, the tale is entertaining, but not remarkable; a story suitable to while away a quiet night or an afternoon at the beach. When I first read it, so many years ago, I do remember being more fond of it, but for a reason having little to do with the plot of the tale.

“Out of the Eons” can be read as a good example of the D&D endgame, the time when the PCs put down their swords and start dealing with issues that can’t be solved solely by riding out and smiting them with sharp objects…even if that’s what Niall eventually does. This tale introduced me to a sword & sorcery hero who was not a landless wanderer, and the events of the story laid the groundwork for how my friends and I did “name level” play. Our high level PCs often got involved with world-shaking events and hobnobbing with the gods, even as we dealt with the mundane concerns of building a new tower on our holdings or excavating a new wing in our thieves’ den. Looking back, I now know that “Out of the Eons” was responsible for this approach to dealing with high level play. I really should go and read the early Niall’s tales and see how he grows into his position. They may give me new insights on the D&D endgame that may be of use in my current Labyrinth Lord campaign.

I also love the beginning of the tale and how the event that launches the plot is so mundane. Digging a new wine cellar is about as incongruous a starting point for a tale involving alien powers and gods as you could imagine. It strikes me as just the sort of minor activity that would get Fafhrd and the Mouser embroiled in some wild scheme. This kind of dichotomy tickles my fancy and the story wins me over because of it.

Before I get to the game material, I should note that “Out of the Eons” is illustrated by Kevin Siembieda. Siembieda is one of those designers that I forget can produce art as well as write, much like Paul Jaquays. I always remember Siembieda more for his Palladium work and the occasional explosion that occurs over there than I do for his art, and every time I see his name scrawled beneath a piece of illustration, I always have that “Oh yeah…” moment. In rereading this story and encountering his work again, I must admit that I kept expecting to turn the page and confront some skull-motif, jackbooted Nazi thug laying in wait for me. The Rifts RPG has apparently done a number on my Siembieda art expectations.

Elixir of Desperate Measures
Many millennia ago, when the universe was a newborn dream, the gods gathered in their starry hall to address a lingering concern. As powerful as the gods were, the cosmos was a mutable place and there might come a day when one of their number became too powerful to be held in check by his fellow deities. Should that day ever come to pass, the cosmos would be at the mercy of that deity alone.

One of the wisest of Powers suggested that the gods pool their divine essences to create a substance that could slay a single god outright and that they thereafter secret this elixir upon the earth in a place impossible for any but a great hero to reach. If the day ever arose that one god needed to be put down, the location of the elixir would be revealed to a mortal hero and it would become their task to destroy that which the gods themselves could no longer challenge. The result was what the bards sing of as the Elixir of Desperate Measures.

When found, the Elixir appears as a glowing white liquid held in a silver cup of plain design. When a weapon is touched to the elixir, it spreads across the length of the weapon, running like water, but clinging like pitch. Once the weapon’s edge is completely coated by the Elixir, the liquid glows brightly for a moment, then fades away as if the weapon absorbed it completely, leaving no trace of the Elixir behind.

The Elixir’s power effectively turns the implement into a weapon of god-slaying. The weapon acts as an arrow of slaying against deities. Its enchantment is only good for one or two successful strikes against a god and it attacks as if a +5 weapon. Each time a deity is struck by the weapon, it must make a saving throw versus death as if it were a 1st level fighter. Failing this save results in instantaneous and irrevocable death. A successful save means the deity suffers damage as normal, provided that is possible given the weapon, attacker, and any other defenses the god might enjoy.

Suffice to say, the Elixir is nearly impossible to locate and it is protected by many magical and monstrous safeguards. No single god knows the location of the Elixir and only several working in concert can deduce the location of the substance and convey its hiding place to a mortal hero. They would only do so in the extremely unlikely event that one of their number amasses enough power to threaten the universe and is deemed a danger to the existence of all living and non-living creations in the cosmos.


-C said...

Thank you for this. I happened to be reading old dragons lately, and wouldn't you know it, got sucked right into that story.

I hardly ever read the fiction in dragon (though I read a lot). It's a testament to that story that random bits caught by flipping were engaging enough to force a full read.

James said...

Fox's Kothar stories are the earliest source I've come across, which refer to an undead MU as a lich. From my (limited) research on the subject, "lich" is just an old word for dead guy.

If I remember correctly, Mr. Fox referred to the MU in question as a "lich", as another way of describing him as being dead. As opposed to making the word "lich," refer to a specific type of dead guy.

I started researching this a little after coming across the reference in a Kothar book and speculated that this was the source of the name for the D&D monster. I found a wikipedia page, where someone else made the same speculation. That article may have been the source, for the page you linked in your post. I do think it highly likely that this is where the usage came from.

limpey said...

Interesting stuff! I'll have to look up tales by Fox!