Funding, Future Plans and Editing Work

Hello everyone,

I thought I would take a minute to post a quick update to let you know about a fundraising campaign that I have created, both as a means to generate resources that might be put toward the publication of the ‘Alluvion’ novel as well as to act as a recurring point of focus for my own productivity. The campaign has been launched via the Patreon website (http://www.patreon.com/), and a direct link to my own page can be found under the ‘Funding’ tab at this site.

I would be humbled to think that anybody out there enjoys what I am doing enough to support it financially, and eventually being in a position to devote myself to my writing full-time would be a dream come true. It all begins, however, with the first book and so I have included a couple of exclusive offers which will be made available in return for more substantial contributions that will help me to achieve this goal. If you like what you have read so far and would like to support me in any way, it would be appreciated more than you know. If you can’t (or don’t want to), then that’s alright too.

I am also still very much open to any copy editing and proofreading assignments that you might have, and would be more than happy to discuss a very modest fee for taking care of this for you. The frequency of this sort of work that has come my way has been steadily increasing over the past twelve months, but I’m still more than willing and available to take more on.

Previous proofing and copy editing clients include:

  • Elite Respite Care: http://www.eliterespitecare.com.au/ (Correspondence)
  • Students from the Australian Maritime College [AMC] (Thesis Editing)
  • Students from Monash University, Victoria (Assignment Edits/Proofing)
  • Students from Deakin University, Victoria (Assignment Edits/Proofing)
  • [Gareth Jack Sansom], I appreciate your help and thank you for taking your time to proofread my assignments. I am extremely happy with the services that you have provided, such as keeping me updated on the progress of my three assignments and for your provision of prompt communication along the way.”

    – Kim C. (University Student)

    Thanks so much for reading, and for all of the terrific feedback I’ve received throughout 2015/16 – it’s been great to hear that my writing is being seen and enjoyed by so many, and I’m looking forward to publishing even more in the coming months.

    I can be reached at E. gjacksansom@gmail.com if there’s anything you’d like to know.

    Thank you,
    Gareth Sansom

    Here is the Eighth Chapter from Alluvion:

    08. The Red Soldier

    Omer’s sons had seen Skara pick up their father’s weapons and advance toward the red soldier, and so they dropped their own bows and ceased firing at the man for fear of accidentally hitting their cousin by mistake. The young brothers could only stand powerless and watch from the forest floor as the two moved threateningly towards each other atop the ridge, preparing for what would no doubt be the most ferocious battle that either fighter had experienced. To his brothers’ surprise, it was little Yemah that was the first of the spectators to call up to his cousin and offer encouragement. He had simply dropped to his knees and begun to cry when he witnessed his father fall at the hands of the man in red, however he was now cursing wildly with every profanity he could remember and screaming at Skara to “Kill that mongrel, slay the red dog who killed our Pa..!” and, “Put him in the ground, dear cousin – cut this coward’s head off..!”

    His two brothers were themselves still stunned by what had just happened, but quickly they too joined in on the cheers and threats that their younger sibling was sending up to the two warriors, calling for the soldier’s head and begging Skara to throw it down to them when he was slain. The champion quickly and carefully moved back several yards to allow Skara to clear Omer’s body, and the two sized each other up for a good ten seconds before Skara screamed a loud war cry and rushed towards his opponent, first crossing his spears and charging forward with all his weight behind them in an attempt to mow the other man down. Their weapons clashed, Skara catching the champion’s pike in his crossed spears and the two of them blocked and parried each other’s left and right strikes for a good minute as Skara’s surge of adrenaline allowed him to push the other man back another several yards where the two found a slightly wider section of the ridge on which to do battle.

    The soldier’s strength was unbelievable, and although Skara had managed to gain some ground he quickly found that he was making little progress in tiring the other man out as he rained blows down upon him left and right. The champion soon picked-up on Skara’s rhythm and blocked a few more strikes before finally finding an opening in his defences and, swiftly raising the rear end of his pike, struck Skara on the left side of his face jarring several teeth and causing his mouth to quickly fill with the metallic taste of his own blood. This did not slow Skara down however, and soon enough he managed himself to land a solid blow squarely on the other man’s chest which caused him to lose his breath momentarily, allowing Skara to run the blade of his other spear across the red soldier’s leg tearing right through his tunic and into the flexed muscle behind it.

    The sensation of pain and the sight of his own blood incensed the champion, further compounding his rage and it was now his turn to charge. Changing his own attack, he swung his pike fiercely across Skara’s forearms knocking the spear right out from his left hand and slicing a sizeable chunk of flesh off from it in the process. The dislodged spear flew out over the ridge, and he could only glance after it as the weapon dropped down to where his young cousins stood so many yards below. They gasped aloud, and Skara realised then that wielding only one thin spear against the sturdy pike the champion brandished would be of little help.

    His mind raced for a play that might again give him an advantage, and he decided to momentarily abandon the offensive and allow his opponent to hammer-down several blows unopposed. If he was quick enough to dodge the sharp edge of his pike as it swung down toward him, he might just be able to strike in the time that it would take him to again raise the heavy weapon. He was conscious of the fact that the champion only had one hand with which to swing, as his shield-arm was still weighed down and hoped that the gods would provide him the speed he needed. As the champion delivered a wide arc, attempting to strike Skara on the right shoulder, he pivoted back and quickly thrust his spear forward running the edge of the weapon straight down his attacker’s left wrist and severing both of the heavy leather straps that held his shield as well as several critical veins in his forearm as it went.

    The soldier roared in agony as his shield disappeared over the edge of the rise, landing only a few short feet away from where Skara’s spear had fallen and he immediately brought his gaping wrist in to his torso, holding it tight against his body in an attempt to slow the flow of blood. Already the warrior was beginning to turn white, and he knew in the back of his mind that the massive gash that Skara had dealt him would in time undoubtedly prove fatal. He staggered back several yards and realised then that he only had one choice if he was to triumph over the valley man. He drew back his right shoulder and lined Skara up for one final, fatal charge. If he could not best the other man in honourable combat, he could at least end both their lives by impaling him in a full-frontal rush, or otherwise drag Skara over the side of the ledge with him to both their certain deaths below.

    He was breathing heavily now and Skara’s mind raced as he looked warily at his opponent, trying to somehow anticipate what his next move might be. The red soldier warmed up with a long groan which grew quickly into a frenzied scream, and without hesitating he charged at Skara throwing his full body weight behind his pike which he now held levelled at his chest. His powerful legs carried him quickly, allowing him to close the distance between them in moments and all of a sudden it dawned on Skara just what it was he was trying to achieve.

    Though the section of the ridge on which they both stood might have been a few feet wider than where they started, there was still scarce little room and nowhere left to hide as the other man barrelled forward. All that the champion needed to do was to throw him momentarily off-balance and secure a good grip on Skara as he toppled from the rise. There was no room to sidestep the attack, and Skara knew that his only hope in that moment would be to hurl his weapon at the soldier from where he stood. There could be no room for error and no second chances. His aim must be true, or else he and his cousins were all surely doomed.

    Skara raised the remaining spear in his right hand, lined up his adversary and with a deep breath drew his shoulder sharply back to strike. Time seemed to have slowed down completely in that moment, as though everything around him was happening in slow-motion and the cries of a thousand negative voices burned his mind like acid rain, eating away at his confidence. Just as he was finally about to loose his weapon, the champion only a few yards away, the red soldier was all of a sudden stopped dead in his tracks, freezing mid stride and just posing stoically with his weapon held aloft like a huge stone statue.

    Somehow, incredibly, his opponent’s rush had come to a grinding halt at the edge of the ridge before he dropped his weapon to the dirt and suddenly took a knee. It was several moments before Skara realised that what were the tail ends of two small arrows had suddenly appeared protruding from out of the left side of his enemy’s face, the points of which were now lodged firmly in his left cheek and temple. Dark blood fountained quietly away in a thin stream from the side of his head as the soldier’s heart pumped its last throes into the open air of the valley, and with a low groan the champion dropped onto his side before his body rolled over the edge of the ravine and crashed loudly down into the forest below.

    For several long seconds Skara simply stood right where he was, his spear still raised high and his mouth agape in an expression of pure astonishment. He was shaking hard as adrenaline surged through his body and the very real promise of expected death still clouded his vision. He felt as though he could vomit, but instead turned over the edge of the ridge and looked down for a sign of where the two arrows had come from. Peering back up at him from below, Asher and Zemer now stood tall, their hunting bows still at arm’s length and with expressions of satisfaction on their faces from having watched the body of their father’s killer plummet to the ground in front of them. Sensing that their cousin was in mortal danger, they had dismissed all risk in firing at the charging soldier, tracking ahead of him as he ran just as Omer had taught them to do when hunting deer in the highlands around their home. Skara moaned loudly when he realised that it was finally over, relief washing over him like a tidal wave and called out to them to stay right where they were.

    He staggered back across the length of the ridge and slowly but carefully worked his way down the rocky cliff once more, mindful not to apply too much pressure on his right hand which was still bleeding profusely from where the soldier’s pike had sliced into him. After several nervous minutes watching on, Omer’s three sons rushed across to greet him at the bottom and the four of them embraced, breathing heavy sighs of relief and praising the gods for watching over Skara and for guiding their arrows.

    Once they had come to terms with the fact that the battle was over, the realisation quickly set in that high above them the body of their uncle and father lay dead, his flame extinguished by the King’s right hand and their thoughts and words turned suddenly to mourning. So quickly had their bravado turned to despair knowing that an honourable fighter, peerless hunter and a cherished member of their own family had been taken from them. Skara cursed the King’s champion, the King and the entire bloodline of the ruling family as he pounded the bare rock of the cliff uncontrollably with both fists in grief and anger. After a time he turned to Asher, instructing him to make arrangements to cover Omer’s body lest the creatures of the forest disturb it.

    Together with his brother Zemer, Asher climbed once more atop the ridge and piled loose stones carefully over and around the body of the man that had raised them since birth. A role model that had taught them to hunt, to fight and through his careful and diligent guidance had made them into men. The eldest two brothers fought back tears as they shared in a silent prayer for his spirit, Skara trying his best to make them understand that the manner of his death was most honourable and would find favour amongst the gods, and that he had reserved for him a place at the right hand of Anu in the world beyond.

    In contrast, the body of the champion was left to rot as it lay. Skara removed his head from his shoulders with Yemah’s blade and placed it crudely between his hands to mark his dishonour in slaying Omer and in so doing also marr his relationship with the pantheon in the afterlife. The four stayed in that place for a long time, reflecting soberly on the battle and events that had brought them there before finally moving on, deciding that no good would come from simply lingering in their grief. Yemah wept openly long into the afternoon, stopping only to sleep as Skara held him close and carried him over one shoulder for the remainder of the day’s travel.

    Back in Nevalı Çori, Andar had taken upon himself to speak with the remaining hunters in the village individually, asking that they join him that day for an urgent meeting in the town plaza concerning matters of Skara and the King’s decree. He had also run from house-to-house and, without going into any great detail, asked every man, woman and child that remained to gather their friends and families and meet with him on urgent business, requesting that they attend at mid-afternoon without exception. Several hours earlier, he again met with Sura and the two of them sat and discussed at length what they would say to the people of the village about their plan, and how they might most tactfully go about saying it. Andar started, asking Sura if there might have been anyone else among them that had shown signs of sympathy in the days following Skara’s imprisonment, that they might ask their assistance in persuading the others.

    She responded rather defeatedly, “Few have had the courage to even speak to me since he was taken away, and fewer still if any have offered any real support for his words and actions. I do suspect however that if more among those left behind were to have opposed He-Tauhasa and his campaign, we might have faced greater difficulty in getting on with our lives without a great many of his soldiers left stationed here to keep the peace. I think that if there were any among them that truly supported Skara, they would have already made themselves somehow known, though I also hold confidence in the fact that the prospect of war appeals to very few, particularly the wives and mothers. Just take a look at the fear and worry in the faces of the children Andar, and consider the additional burden that you and the other remaining men have had to shoulder in the days since the others have left.” Andar nodded. He had no choice to agree with everything she had said, as no-one was particularly thrilled to have been left behind and everyone that had had been forced to work twice as hard in order to keep everything running smoothly.

    They decided to address the villagers together and in the hours preceding the meeting prepared themselves and readied the plaza, relocating a large wooden podium to the centre of the town square from which they might address the villagers when the time came. At mid-afternoon, they returned together with Harna and Kirti to the centre of the village and waited for their people to arrive. At first it appeared that no-one would show, and Sura began to feel anxious but as the minutes wore on they began to appear, at first only in dribs and drabs and eventually by the dozen until all who had remained behind were ready, present and accounted for. Andar first waited for the large group to settle as they talked among themselves for several minutes before he raised his hands and beckoned them to fall silent. His eyes scanned across the throng, and after he was satisfied that everyone had shown up and were now ready to listen, he began speaking:

    “Friends and family,” he began nervously, “you may be wondering why I’ve asked you all here today, and why I have made you step away from the valuable work that you’re all doing. I’ll begin by saying that were it not concerning a matter of great importance, I would not waste your time in such a stressful state as our village has been of late. I know that there is much that needs to be taken care of with our brothers away at the capital, and I appreciate you lending me your time this afternoon so that I might speak with you.” At a momentary pause in his delivery, one of the older mothers from the rear of the crowd not known for her patience called out loudly, “Come on young Andar, get on with it already..! We can’t all of us waste an entire afternoon standing here and listening to you drone on – out with it..!” Several others among the crowd spoke up in agreement, and several more laughed as Andar squirmed at the podium. Still slightly embarrassed, he continued nonetheless:

    “Alright then, well.. to get to the point, I’ve asked you here today to talk more of our king’s decree, and hope that I might sway you to consider that perhaps this war is not in fact the best course of action delivered from the soundest of minds. I would like to to discuss the words of my brother that have brought He-Xur’s wrath down upon his shoulders and I wanted to stand here before you and make it known that I too now believe those words to hold value, and that I have lost confidence in the decree of the Seers as told to us by He-Xur.” Several of the women gasped, and others murmured while the other hunters that remained only watched on with arms crossed, as yet not quite convinced at how to react. Andar went on, knowing full well that any crowd’s attention was fragile and that he was taking a very big gamble in choosing to believe that the rest of the village felt as he did towards the war, let alone the King’s decree:

    “This past week you have seen friends and family, brothers and husbands – good, honourable men stolen away from you to fight in a war that we feel,” he gestured to Sura who stood behind him and to his right, “should never have been declared in the first place. Not only this, but I have personally never in all my years known my brother to tell a lie, not even to save face.” He looked around at the crowd, and began pointing at several of the more vocal men in the audience he knew to have shared a friendship with Skara, “Have you, you or any of you ever known Skara to be taken by the fancies of fairytales and folk-stories. Have any of you ever succeeded in making a fool of my brother, or in any moment found to be of slow wit..? I know I have not, and neither, I suspect, has anyone else among us. The more time that I spend thinking about this war and the more I reflect on the words of my brother, the more my heart sinks as I feel as though we’ve gone into this mess the complete wrong way around. I had followed Skara to the plateau, and while I myself did not meet the men that he met, I have seen the tops of the towers at Uru-Mah and I now believe his words to be true. They must be.”

    The crowd by this stage was now very much alive, with several groups talking amongst themselves, some frowning heavily and muttering under their breath and others looking skyward as if for some kind of guidance to help them get their head around what was being said. Before anyone else could speak, a stocky butcher named Taran Ruhl who felt as though he had been grossly inconvenienced by having to attend the event pushed his way through the crowd and addressed Andar directly: “It’s all well and good you can’t accept that your brother might have been mistaken, this sort of family loyalty is of course to be expected. But how do we,” he waved his right thumb back at the crowd behind him, “how do we know that he met with who he says he did. What proof do we have that those phantoms you say spoke with Skara were even Watchers at all..? We all love you and your family, Andar, and we’re thankful for Skara’s direction these past weeks but we risk everything in questioning anything from the capital, and you know this. We just can’t do it on a fool’s whim.”

    At this, almost everyone present nodded their heads at each other and muttered in agreement, some staring at the ground as the gravity of the situation Andar had placed himself in dawned on them. He was a little flustered himself now, and if he was honest somewhat unsure as to how he might actually go about convincing them and even himself that what he had seen at the plateau was in fact the city of the Watchers. He turned to look back at Sura, however quickly discovered that she had left his side at the height of the commotion and was now nowhere to be seen. He looked right and left and out across the crowd, realising that she had completely disappeared.

    “By the gods,” he thought to himself, “it’s just my lot as always for a good woman to leave right when I need her most.” He turned back to the gathering, who were now asking him all sorts of questions about exactly what sort of proof he had and why he himself would believe such nonsense. Several of the other hunters had begun to turn and talk only among themselves, and by their expressions alone Andar quickly realised that they were weighing up their loyalty to Ihreikas and more than likely discussing whether moving against him might be their safest option (or perhaps one that might yield reward from the capital).

    Just as the crowd began to work themselves up to some sort of conclusion, a familiar voice returned and called out from behind Andar, pleading with those gathered to stop talking once more and listen. Andar turned to see Sura again ascending the wooden stairs to the platform, and as she did he noticed that she now walked with a curious leather sack slung across her shoulders which she carried close and with extreme care as if a child or something equally fragile were resting inside of it. In cleaning their modest home the day before, Sura had stumbled across the pouch full of compounds given to Skara by Yamnaya, and had realised straight away that it must have been gifted to him at some point on his journey to the plateau. The rest of the crowd too noticed the strange bag, and all fell silent as she reached the podium and beckoned Andar to let her move forward and speak.

    “My friends, I would ask that you show patience to us as we plead my husband’s case. Neither was I with Skara when he met with the Watchers in the north, but I have come to believe his words as true and fear that his prophecy too will come to pass in only a few short days.” She removed the leather pouch and held it aloft, “The elements inside this bag were given to him at their meeting, and though he has not spoken of their purpose I would now hope to find among them something that might convince you that his story is the truth, and that those were indeed the children of the Ancients that came to him on his journey.” She then opened the pouch and fumbled through its contents, hoping to quickly find some kind of conclusive proof of the sorcery of the Watchers. Several containers with lockable lids did not appear to contain anything of remarkable interest, however she did remove one vessel which appeared to contain a pale, thick paste which she opened, sniffed momentarily and handed to the crowd to sate their curiosity.

    The group passed this and several of the other jars around, cautiously poking at and discussing the contents and commenting on the strange nature of the weird and colourful ingredients contained therein. One such jar reached the same older woman who had earlier pushed Andar to hurry in his delivery, and she remarked loudly with a scoff, “Powders and ointments – the same as any shaman in the wilds might try to barter with. How is this evidence of anything more than a gullible mind and fool’s medicine from the hills..?” Several women around her also spoke up to agree, each and every one of them suddenly having a story of their own to share and Andar noticed the same few huntsmen that he had seen conspiring earlier again eyeing him off and subtly gesturing to the knives and weapons strapped to their belts. Sura desperately rummaged once more through the pouch, hoping to find something else that would prove without a doubt that Skara had been telling the truth. Before she could however, one of the hunters moved forward and spoke:

    “We’ve heard enough of this foolishness..! We’ve all come here today as you’ve asked and you’ve delivered to us nothing that would sway us in our opinion of a man who, I must point out, has already had his sentence passed. What are we doing here..?” he raised his hands and turned around to address the crowd, “Do you in fact have anything new to show us, or should we return to our work..? Many of us still have much to do before sundown, and scarcely enough hands to get it done.” Most of the crowd agreed, and as several of the group began to dissipate from the rear of the crowd to return to their homes and those same hunters moved closer toward Andar with a new fire in their eyes, he knew that he needed to do something drastic to avoid finding himself on the receiving end of the same fate as his half-brother.

    While Sura was still rummaging through the contents of the sack, Andar rudely tore it from her grip and reached in to take one of several closed vials that he had been eyeing off earlier from his position beside her. He took the brightest compound he could see; a sphere containing a tightly compressed and vivid red powder and thrust the bag roughly back at her as she quietly protested. Just as three of the more animated hunters approached the podium, he grasped the vial tightly in one hand and threw back his massive shoulders, lining up his aim with a heavy grinding stone that rested vertically against a dwelling on the far northern edge of the plaza.

    He hurled the vial quickly and with all his might at the stone, hoping somehow and with really very little to go on that in breaking it, something impressive might happen. He didn’t know exactly what it was that he was expecting, praying at the very least that some visible evidence of the alchemy contained within it might burst forth and prove without a doubt that what what they were saying held water. What he hadn’t expected however was what actually happened when the tightly packed glass sphere did shatter against the stone, and its contents suddenly mixed with the cold open air around it. In the split second that it took to cover the distance across the plaza, the vial exploded with a deafening bang and everyone gathered immediately fell to the ground as a monstrous ball of searing white fire erupted suddenly out in all directions, sending with it a shock-wave that broke apart several wooden carts and tables and blew the nearest wall of the house the stone had rested on into kindling.

    A thick cloud of black smoke filled the air and small pieces of the destroyed wall rained down all around them like matchsticks as the roof of the house caught fire and collapsed into itself. The loud boom had momentarily deafened most of the crowd including Sura, who was now on her knees holding both hands over her ears and almost every child present was either crying or screaming as their mothers slowly clambered to their feet. Andar groaned loudly as he raised himself up and shook his head from side to side. If he could have predicted what kind of reaction the small vial was going to produce, he might have tossed it further away from where he was standing and it took the better part of a minute or two before the ringing in his ears subsided and he again could look out across the crowd, a number of whom had rushed to throw water on the roof of the damaged building that was now burning heavily. As he did look out over them, he quickly noticed the expressions of shock and understanding that had replaced the looks of skepticism and derision in their faces moments earlier, and could not help but break into raucous laughter in spite of himself.

    Andar moved once more to the podium as the crowd collected their senses and without wasting any time, bellowed, “My friends, do you believe us now..?” He held his arms wide and raised both his eyebrows in sheer delight, laughing again as the crowd looked first around them at the scale of carnage that such a small vial had caused and then fearfully to Andar, Sura and the pouch which now lay on the floor beside the podium and that as far as they knew, contained more of the same. The hunters that had earlier regarded Andar with suspicion quickly did a one-eighty, now deciding that their scepticism had been misplaced and it was Taran who was the first among the crowd to respond, declaring, “Aye, there’ll be no questioning that now.” He pointed toward the debris with one hand and with the other stuck a thick index-finger into his left ear, wiggling it about to try and restore his hearing. “You two have made your point. Now give us just a minute to settle this lot down before hearing more of what you have to say.”

    Ander smiled and went to help Sura to her feet, apologising as he did and assuring her that he had no idea exactly what was going to happen but that he “had to try something.” She awkwardly rose, dusting pieces of timber from her shoulders and garment and bent down to pick up the leather bag that she had dropped in her confusion. She then stopped for a second, lost in thought and looked up at him, replying in no uncertain terms, “Andar, I never, ever want to see you acting again without thinking and if you cannot help yourself, as I know you often can’t – at least give me some warning first.” Her hearing was beginning to return now, and she coughed thickly before asking him, “It looks like we have won them over, for the time being anyway. What now..?” He replied, “Well, all we need to do is convince them to follow us north to the plateau. They at least now know that the Watcher’s safehold exists, all we need to do is make them understand that we risk nothing in making the journey.” Sura nodded and agreed and the two of them turned again to address the crowd, asking first if there was anyone among them who might have been hurt by their demonstration.

    When all were accounted for and those that left had rushed back to join them, Taran again motioned to speak, asking of them, “So you’ve proven that Skara met with more than mere wild-men on his journey north, and in doing so I and the rest of us might then be led to believe that his warning should be taken seriously. But the question remains that if we were to follow his instructions and seek shelter at the plateau, what guarantee do we have that if he is in fact mistaken, He-Xur will not simply return with the King’s soldiers and make an example of us for our disobedience..? Can either of you guarantee that we’re not better off just waiting here for the rest of them to return before taking any drastic steps..?” Several among the crowd agreed, however now much more politely stood and waited for an answer from the two at the podium.

    “You were all present when Skara spoke of what he had been told would come, and you all know how soon it was that he warned us to expect it.” Sura replied, “If his reckoning is true, we only have a few short days to find safety with the Watchers which means we must leave no later then first light tomorrow if we are to make it to Uru-Mah. Ihreikas and his campaign against the west would surely take weeks and maybe even months to unfold and while we simply don’t have the time to spare waiting here before this catastrophe arrives, neither do we have to fear that any such force might arrive from the capital in the time it would take us to reach safety and, if disaster does not come to pass, return home before anyone would ever know. I promise you, we have nothing to chance in going, and perhaps everything to lose if we delay.”

    The crowd murmured among themselves for a time, however Sura’s plan just could not be faulted. Their situation was very clear, and whether or not they subscribed entirely to what had been proposed, everyone present knew what time remained should the worst come to pass. Although the whys, hows and wherefores still needed to be settled, Andar sensed that those that had remained were now behind them and called out loudly from the podium, “Who among you will join us on our pilgrimage north. Will you come with us to the stone city and seek safety from the dragon of the skies..?” As one and with varying levels of confidence, the people the villagers shouted “Aye..!” finally ready to accept Skara’s rendition of events. “Then let us make haste and move at first light tomorrow, the earlier the better.”

    The villagers discussed what preparations would need to be made ahead of their journey to the plateau, and elected to begin gathering food and supplies that afternoon for what would undoubtedly be a long and difficult road ahead.

    The Mirrorlings of Kepler 442b

    ‘The Mirrorlings’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

    It had taken some time for the mirrorlings of Kepler 442b to willingly reveal themselves to Kelly and the rest of landing party, though their hesitation wasn’t entirely unexpected. They were a shy and reclusive species after all, and although they eventually warmed to the strange and ungainly group of explorers that touched down unannounced one morning nearby their village, it was with the greatest reluctance that they first dared to venture out from the shadows of the forest wall to greet them.

    Of course, the travellers hadn’t been blind to clues that there was some sort of sentient species living somewhere on the surface. Even from orbit, they could easily discern the clear evidence of large, ruined structures scattered across the two major continents of the planet and the telltale signs of a primitive agriculture that had more recently developed on their outskirts. Despite knowing however, there were certain guidelines that had been put in place which limited potential human relations with alien life forms, and at their core was the basic premise that every newly discovered species retained the right to simply be left alone, should they choose to be. It was a subsequent relief then when the first of the natives poked its funny little head out from the mire and approached them, and all the explorers could do to keep from cheering loudly and frightening him away again.

    Not unlike many periods in Earth’s own history, whatever dominant culture once existed on Kepler 442b appeared to be undergoing a dramatic shift of sorts, a period of slow renewal following some kind of long and apparently destructive upheaval in its most recent history. It presented an exciting opportunity for the enthusiastic traveler to come face-to-face with an actual developing alien civilisation, and a once in a lifetime experience for the anthropologically or archeologically inclined that might well make them the envy of their friends and peers back home. Despite advancements in the ease with which interstellar expeditions could now be undertaken, their mission was the first that had actually promised to introduce the crew to a living, breathing alien life form. Understandably, each and every one of them was simply brimming with excitement at the prospect.

    There had been a handful of similar missions organised before their own, too many unsuccessful attempts sent forth by the new world government to find and establish contact with civilised life among the many thousands of exoplanets orbiting Earth’s nearest neighbouring stars, however none had been remotely successful until now, and the public budget was stretched far beyond measure when the first clear images and comprehensive data from the surface of Kepler 442b was finally beamed back home. It seemed prudent then that funding for this particular mission be shared amongst both public and private interests, which also opened the door to a number of lucrative advertising investments and even the participation of a small filmmaking crew from one of the world’s largest media networks that joined them to document the expedition. Ultimately it was a somewhat ragtag assortment that had been selected to made the journey, but not an entirely unreasonable representation of terrestrial society at its supposed peak.

    Upon arrival, the group of diplomats, potential settlers and hopeful missionaries that had set out from Earth’s Lunar Station several months earlier found themselves to be largely disappointed. For starters, the half-government sponsored and half-privatised First Contact program had boasted ambitiously to deliver to them an “exhilarating, action-packed adventure into the unknown.” The many courses, seminars and rigorous training exercises that the crew had been forced to undertake leading up to it seemed to have all been building toward an advertised climax whereby they would be among the first human beings to either a) discover, interact with and learn from a completely new species, b) plant the terrestrial flag of discovery into the virgin soil of a new world, or c) at least be able to enjoy strange, untainted tropical wildernesses and alien delights beneath the gorgeous warmth of a scorching white sun (a spurious claim, to say the least. Kepler 442b actually orbited an orange dwarf star, and the irritating hue of its resulting daylight made many of them feel quite nauseous for the first few hours until their senses adjusted to the unfamiliar environment).

    What the group had found, however, was that space travel was not at all the glamorous and intrepid experience that they had been sold. The journey had ended up taking almost three terrestrial months, even though they travelled at the fastest speeds their ship’s new gravity drive would allow and with a limited supply of power, food and fluids, those last few cramped and filthy days’ travel could not have passed them all by soon enough. Everyone aboard, whether scientist, student or military personnel almost fell headlong from the airlock once the massive landing pod had settled safely on the planet’s surface, and even the most irreverent among them gave thanks to whatever higher power came to mind when the first fresh breath of air that wasn’t mechanically stale and recycled finally filled their thirsty lungs.

    To make matters worse, it didn’t appear that any kind of intelligent speculation had taken place prior to the selection process with regards to the inevitable culture clash that might occur when those of a military persuasion and training are thrown in close confinement with the idealistic diplomat, disobedient youth and a crew of snap-happy filmmakers that seemed not to stop shooting for even a moment’s peace. Throw a handful of religious zealots into the mix, and before you know it you’re sitting on a ticking time bomb of human extremes. Somehow though, if not by the grace of someone’s gods, those aboard the Endeavour reached their destination in one piece before the ship’s captain, a gruff veteran by the name of Kelly Miller and his men were forced to revert to their own brand of conflict resolution, much to his private disappointment.

    Once on the surface, the landing party established a small encampment in a level clearing on the banks of a narrow stream nearby the pod and Kelly ordered a number of his crew to quickly set about foraging through the strange, tropical vegetation for samples of what best resembled comparatively terrestrial looking fruits and vegetables for analysis. Despite the wicked heat from above, there thankfully seemed to be a cool and constant breeze that rolled off from the massive oceans surrounding the small island continent and so once a makeshift base of operations had been established, many spent their first few hours doing little more than just lolling about lazily in the shade and taking stock of their surroundings.

    Local fauna on the surface seemed at first glance to be surprisingly shy and scarce despite the rich and fertile environment, however a family of wealthy tourists that had bought their way in to the experience couldn’t resist filling drive after drive of film and picture recordings as a great flock of what could only be described as giant, wingless amoebas floated by on the first morning against the brilliance of the planet’s sun, bathing the travellers in a strange purple glow as daylight passed through their shapeless, bilious bodies. Where encountered, plant and animal life on the planet were unlike anything any of them had ever seen, and for some that experience alone had seemed to make the journey worthwhile.

    The dense forests surrounding their camp were comprised primarily of different varieties of tall, whip-like scrub interspersed with the wide, imposing forms of massive birch-like trees that were completely smooth and featureless along the length of their trunks until they burst to life some two hundred feet above them creating a flawless, jagged canopy which allowed only the palest haze of sunlight through. What most closely resembled giant, sallow pitcher plants also littered the forest floor in places and attracted clouds of small, transparent insects that looked something like tiny flying jellyfish, and it almost began to seem to the travellers as though no vertebrates had managed at all to evolve in the planet’s strange and eclectic ecosystem. Until Dahl came forth to greet them, that is.

    Kelly and his officers had just returned from a morning spent atop a nearby hill some several kilometers from base camp, where they combed through the rubble of what appeared to have at one time been a massive, ancient temple complex of some kind that would have towered in antiquity over the thick forest surrounding their clearing. It had taken the small party several hours to safely navigate their way into the heart of the ruins, where he’d noted and made sure to document an avenue of weird and almost frightening carved statues in a state of advanced decay that seemed to glorify a somehow familiar looking worm-like creature, most likely either another benign and airborne invertebrate or perhaps another unseen native that occupied the shallow waters of the nearby stream which babbled softly away in the distance.

    It wasn’t unusual even on Earth to come across similar such tributes and monuments from a bygone era, erected in reverence to wild creatures and beasts of burden that might have been crucial to the day-to-day survival of the creative culture and so he’d decided to think little more of them other than making sure to take plenty of pictures to send back to their government and the other assorted financiers of his mission. Kelly and his men had been tasked to collect a certain quota of reports and data that he was obliged to archive during their month-long projected stay on the new world, data that might very well decide whether future missions and colonies would be sent forth and established on the surface of Kepler 442b. “We really are privileged to be here,” he thought, pausing among the monoliths momentarily to drink in his surroundings. And so far, they were lucky that not a single plant or animal appeared to be any cause for immediate concern. In spite of this, the tall, ancient statues that still remained standing caused him to feel just a little bit uneasy.

    What made Kelly feel most uncomfortable about the likenesses lay in the detail. Those responsible for chiselling the creatures from the dark, blood-red rock of the hillside had paid careful attention to honour several marked features which might, to most soft-bodied animals, seem somewhat odd; twin sets of tiny pincers, deep set, slanted eyes sat far on either side of their pointed heads and wide mouths in which rows of savage and jagged teeth deeply lined their gullets like awful needles. In the back of his mind, he quietly hoped that this was one creature that wasn’t depicted to scale, and one that his crew didn’t happen to stumble upon unprepared during their stay.

    When he and the rest of his men finally returned to the clearing later that day, they entered the camp to find the other members of the landing party standing staggered in a wide, close ring around something at the centre of the encampment, and could see the tops of several telescopic boom stands that the documentary crew had set up to record what he supposed was just another in a long line of crew interviews taking place. “Huh, well I guess these guys are finally ready to kick-off the circus out here,” he thought distastefully as he pushed his way through the crowd, who were all just intently staring for some reason at whoever it was the crew were filming. Everyone included in the mission, regardless of their role and standing were charged with a long list of chores and assignments to complete on a daily basis, and although it might have seemed at times that he was fighting a losing battle, it was ultimately still his job to make sure that they were carried out to a one.

    “Alright, alright – guys, we need to pull together and start collecting supplies,” he started, approaching the centre of the circle, “What stores are left on the ship are strictly for the return journey, and I’ll be damned if anyone thinks I’m settling for another sodding ration pack for tonight’s dinner.” The mission had been supplied for the most part by a prominent global ‘New Foods’ group with an abundant supply of freeze-dried, powdered meals for the crew to enjoy, however despite repeated claims that they “wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” not a single option on the menu had even remotely lived up to promises made on the packaging. “We all have a fair idea of what we can and can’t make a meal out of. Now, who can help me..” He trailed off in surprise all of a sudden as his line of sight dropped to Dahl, who turned to the sound of Kelly’s voice and looked up at him with a curious smile (he since learned that this must have been a universal trait).

    The creature, which could only be most closely described as a short, cat-like animal that stood almost three feet tall on its hind haunches and was covered almost entirely in a glistening deep blue fur was standing upright in the middle of the group, paws crossed over its pot belly and regarding the landing party with a quizzical look resembling that a young child might make when coming face-to-face with a big cat, gorilla or some other large beast that they had only seen in picture books before. Immediately taken aback, Kelly’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped a little as his mind wrestled for a way to relate the mirrorling to something, anything else that he’d seen on Earth.

    The creature cocked its furry head to one side when he stopped short, and let out a momentary gasp that caused the rest of the group around them to fawn and sigh (and though he kept his own reaction in check, it was all he himself could do not to let out an “Aww..” of his own). Dahl’s two round, black eyes were as big as saucers, and widened even further when Kelly instinctively reached his right hand down to clasp the handle of the rifle that hung loosely to one side, prompting him to raise both hands and crouch slightly, remarking, “Hey, hey little guy, don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” Standing completely still now, he turned to face Joseph Alvarez, the head of the documentary crew and whispered, “Joey, hey..! What on Earth is that thing, and how long has it been here..?”

    Joseph replied with a wide smile, “Your guess is as good as mine, Captain, and about ten minutes now. The little fellow must have wandered in out of the forest somewhere while we were setting out the wind breakers, before we knew it one of the settlers called out and well – there he was, just standing there like a big ol’ technicolour cat, sniffing the air. Can’t speak a lick of English, but he’s a talkative little fellow nonetheless. Go on – say something to him.. it.” Kelly rolled his eyes and then mused for a moment, stroking his red, mottled beard as the rest of the crew looked on, expecting him to take charge of the situation. He turned back to Dahl, starting, “Hey there, little guy.” The mirrorling said nothing, only tilting his head to the left now and making the occasional low, cooing noise. Kelly went on, gesturing with his right hand to his chest, “I.. am Kelly,” he offered slowly, “What’s your name..? You, can you speak..? Do you understand me..?” He pointed to Dahl, and the pause in conversation seemed to prompt it to reply.

    The creature raised a small, three-toed paw to its own chest and with clear and reasoned emulation, responded as best it could. In a high and delicate voice which almost resembled a child singing, it replied, “Am Dahl,” and bowed it’s head slightly forward as it did. Some among the landing party immediately erupted into cheers, and the rest started chattering amongst themselves as the cameras edged closer and continued to roll. This sudden flurry of activity seemed to spook Dahl who tweaked his head around nervously, his eyes flitting from human to human as he clearly searched his surrounds for the quickest way out of what was already a threatening and delicate situation. Kelly immediately knew that if he didn’t restore order right away that the creature would have no choice but to flee to safety, or otherwise do something even more drastic. He called for quiet and the rest of his officers followed suit, putting a finger to their lips and shushing the settlers until all eyes rested silently on the tiny visitor once more.

    Kelly was extremely curious now, and wanted to know whether there were more creatures like this ‘Dahl’ nearby. To satisfy his own speculation and to get a better understanding of what else might be lurking in the dense vegetation around them, he spoke once more to the creature. He gestured carefully around to the rest of the group, asking, “We are human, from Earth.” He pointed skyward, a gesture he immediately realised to be a foolish one as Dahl merely followed his raised finger with both eyes and again cocked his head in confusion. “We,” he indicated once more to his fellow travellers, “are many, and are the same. Are there more, like you..?” He pointed at Dahl, and allowed the creature a moment to attempt to comprehend what he was trying to ask.

    The small creature furrowed its furry brow, gave a calculating squeak and with its right paw seemed to tease a patch of long whiskers which grew the corner of each chubby cheek. A moment later, it appeared to have reached some sort of interpretation of what Kelly was asking of it, and wide-eyed responded, pointing with one paw to its face and another to the jungle behind Kelly, “You.. you..! Mrpla dazou shu’a, zug-zul a’sha – you..!” It then nodded excitedly, bounded quickly and unexpectedly past Kelly and beckoned them to follow as the circle broke and he hopped away speedily toward an opening in the forest wall.

    The entire camp shared excited glances and straight away turned as one to follow, however Kelly quickly surmised that no good could come from the lot of them simply up and abandoning their settlement to take off blindly into the forest in pursuit. He was fast to order a majority of them reluctantly back to work, and singled out Alvarez and another filmmaker, a single missionary (he had little time for them under normal circumstances) and a handful of the ship’s science detail and asked that they join him in following the strange creature out of the clearing, it chirping, bubbling and excitedly pointing out assorted scrub and rocks to its human guests as they went. It all seemed to happen so spontaneously, but Kelly though to himself, “This is why we’re here, after all. Goodness knows I’m going to need to fill out these reports with something, the sooner I’ve got what they need, the sooner I can take a breather myself.” He reasoned that as he was already growing tired of mapping terrain and sampling the ruins and vegetation around the campsite, at least this new visitor might provide a little excitement to lift his spirits.

    Once within the dank forest and with the humans in tow the mirrorling quickly picked up its pace, vaulting dextrously over piles of broken stone and clumps of strange, spider-like bushes as it raced through the undergrowth. The humans, already having worked for most of the morning soon began to tire as it led them all further and further into the thick jungle and after almost an hour’s hike Kelly decided that they needed to take a breather if they were going to go the distance. He sharply whistled ahead and indicated to Dahl that they needed to stop for a short time and rest. “We’re tired, buddy,” he gesticulated to the creature, rubbing his thighs and exaggerating the motion that they were in pain, “Our legs hurt, we need to stop.” Dahl responded with an obviously disapproving frown, and if Kelly didn’t know any better he could have sworn the creature was pouting as he searched the forest trail for a suitable place to stop and sit. Joseph and his cameraman were quick to thank Kelly for the opportunity to finally set their heavy recording gear down for a moment, and the head of the ship’s mission, a young reverend by the name of Michael Flaherty took it upon himself to minister to the lot of them, much to the obvious contempt of the party’s scientific contingent.

    Sitting on a wide stone by the path and apart from the rest of the group, Kelly unclipped a small canteen from his belt and raised it to his lips taking a much needed gulp of purified water replenished from the ship’s humidifier. As he went to lower the vessel once more from his face, he quickly spat the mouthful back out into the ground in surprise. Dahl had silently crept up to where he rested and was now just staring at him with a curious expression, his dark and circular face only a foot or so away from his own. Kelly’s reaction startled the creature, causing him to bound away again quickly to safety and peer back at him from behind a nearby boulder, clearly rattled by the other’s reaction.

    “Hey, hey – it’s alright,” Kelly said with a laugh to the frightened creature, dropping his container and raising his hands in a gesture of peace, “You just startled me is all. Come here and let me get a better look at you. Come on – I won’t bite.” After taking a moment to calm down, Dahl slowly and gingerly left his hiding place and came once more toward Kelly (he was strangely drawn to the leader of the group, intrigued perhaps by his obvious standing among the others). He cautiously approached to within arm’s reach of the commander before eventually dropping down on his haunches and carefully resting his tiny head on the captain’s knee. Kelly quickly glanced over towards Alvarez, Flaherty and the others to see if they were watching, only to find them facing away in the other direction, eyes glazed as the reverend launched into yet another tirade in which he reinforced the need to acknowledge their debt to the almighty by treating the new world with respect, and thanking his god for the bounty of the strange and alien environment in which they found themselves.

    Kelly shook his head and turned back to Dahl, who had closed both of his dark eyes and was now making gentle cooing noises as he too recovered from the effort of the journey so far. Deciding that this might also be a universally acceptable gesture, and partly because he couldn’t help himself, he began stroking the tuft of thick hair on top of the mirrorling’s head which caused it to purr and coo even louder. “Well, you are a friendly little thing, aren’t you..?” he smiled. Kelly looked around again, gazing into the heavy shadows which bridged the thick, misshapen trunks of the trees and added, “Let’s just hope for all of our sakes you’re about the most threatening thing out here. I’m not sure how much farther you’re going to take us here fella, and it’s quite a way back now. We can’t afford to be apart from the others for too much longer.” He reckoned by the position of the planet’s sun that they had at least another few hours of good light before they would need to turn back, and was himself still quite keen to see what sort of society the strange little creatures had established so deep in the alien wilderness.

    After another few minutes, and when Reverend Flaherty had finally finished his sermon (to the quiet celebration of his audience), the group rose and continued on their way. At several places on their journey they passed close to a number of the wide, pungent pitcher plants Kelly had noticed earlier that seemed to grow in groups of two or three in hollows by the wayside. He found it odd that whenever the party approached one of these plants, the creature Dahl seemed to grow visibly nervous and would chatter quickly and quietly to itself before then leading the group obviously away from and around them, even if it meant crossing into the denser forest by the path. He found this curious, but not knowing quite how to pick the creature’s brain on the matter just yet, decided to think nothing more of it for the time being. “For all I know,” he mused, “some of his own tribe have fallen into those weird things at one point or another. God knows the little guys would have a hard time getting out again, not to mention that smell..”

    Dahl seemed now to be growing more and more excited with every step they took, as the forest trail began to widen and the ascent level-out which caused Kelly to believe that they were finally getting close to where the rest of his community or family (he wasn’t quite sure what to expect) lived. Soon enough, after another twenty minutes of hiking they began to hear the excited chattering of dozens of small voices carried on the wind from somewhere up ahead, and within moments they found that they had left the forest wall once more and were entering another larger clearing, not so different in many ways from the one that they had landed in.

    Kelly and his men were surprised to be greeted in the open by a wide ring of small, simple huts that had been built by the mirrorlings over the top of a series of shallow dugouts which appeared to have been painstakingly clawed from the earth by many tiny paws. It was difficult to say how long they had been standing there, however the same thick, dark moss that grew over most of the rocks and fallen logs in the forest seemed to cover a large portion of the exterior of the dwellings which indicated that theirs was a settlement that had remained in that place and as it was for some time.

    The brilliant light of the sun that shone once more through the break in the canopy above blinded the group momentarily, but as soon as their eyes adjusted they could also make out the forms of many more dozens of tiny heads and wide, curious eyes peeking out from the darkness of the pits and from behind the huts ahead of them. The humans stood cautious for a minute, looking to Dahl for a go-ahead before daring to progress any further into his village. Despite the apparent docile nature of the creatures, all of them knew better than to assume that nothing on the planet was without the ability to defend itself, and so Kelly chose to take caution. As far as he was concerned it was down to their furry friend now, and so they simply stood as still as possible on the outskirts and waited.

    After regarding Kelly for a brief moment, Dahl hopped away excitedly into the middle of the ring of houses and began chirping and chattering loudly to the rest of his kin, none of whom yet dared to venture from the safety of their hiding places. After a minute or so of indistinguishable back and forth with several of his own, the group watched on as a lone mirrorling, much older and shaggier than the others crept out from the largest hut at the far end of the clearing and approached Dahl where he crouched. The two then proceeded to chatter loudly (and at some points heatedly) between themselves for a short while, which made Kelly and the rest of the human travellers just a little confused and uncomfortable.

    Lieutenant Jim Tannock, a career soldier and one of three other military personnel among the group leaned in close to Kelly and whispered, “Captain, do you really think we ought to be here..? Clearly these things are a little freaked out, and I’ve counted at least thirty of the little guys myself hiding out behind those huts. Maybe we should just head back, give them some time to get used to the idea that we’re out here first. We don’t have the firepower to look after everyone if, you know, things go south..” Several others in the party heard this and became clearly agitated at the possibility that they might somehow come to harm, however Kelly merely mulled his suggestion over for a second and then replied, “No, I’m not convinced any of us are in any danger just yet. Let’s just wait here a little longer. Whatever this one’s saying,” he indicated toward Dahl with the butt of his rifle, “the rest now seem to be listening. Take a look – some of the others are coming out. Let’s give him another minute or two.”

    Sure enough, several of the other natives had now begun to creep out from behind the rocks and shelters in the clearing and were now moving cautiously toward Dahl while also keeping their gaze fixed firmly on the intruders. Clearly the first mirrorling to approach Dahl had been regarded as some sort of leader among the others, and it appeared that he had needed quite some convincing that the humans posed no immediate threat before allowing them to come any closer. After several more minutes, conversation ground to a halt between the two creatures and the more authoritative of the mirrorlings broke away from Dahl, carefully approaching a nervous Kelly and his men to stand about a half a dozen yards away before it gave a curious bow, and speaking as much to them as the rest of his village, proclaimed ceremoniously, “Zada, dorpa kuda – thurli’a a’sha zun-zura m’ath.” Immediately as though prompted, the rest of the villagers wandered out from their hiding places, some walking upright and others hopping along on their hind and forelegs and gathered behind Dahl and their leader, before pointing at the visitors and talking quickly and excitedly amongst themselves in their strange and musical dialect.

    Dahl wandered back to the humans and, chattering excitedly, tugged at the cuff of Kelly’s fatigues beckoning him to join them. “Well, I guess that’s as close to an invitation as we’ll get boys,” he remarked to the others, and gestured for the rest of them to follow him into the settlement. The other mirrorlings crowded the group as they were led by Dahl and the village leader, who they found to identify as A’thal Worl (A’thal, they decided, was some sort of title bestowed upon him as each of the tribe only appeared otherwise to have a single name) into the largest of the rustic dwellings wherein they were politely sat down and offered an assortment of strange plants and roots which most of the party tried with the greatest grace and dignity to decline. The next hour saw the two groups gesticulating amongst themselves and trying as best they could to understand and find out more about each other, which proved in some moments to be enlightening and others, nothing short of frustrating.

    From what the humans were able to gather, there were around fifty or sixty of the little blue creatures that lived together as some sort of tribal arrangement in the village. The mirrorlings were mostly herbivores, much to the visitors’ relief save for a measure of fist-sized gelatinous globs that the creatures had offered to them which turned their stomachs as they wriggled and writhed over the flat wooden dish they were served on. The small creatures hungrily devoured the glistening insects by the pawful when they were politely passed back, much to Kelly’s disgust, as though they were some sort of strange delicacy reserved only for special guests or to be enjoyed on the most important of occasions.

    They learned that the males among the tribe were only slightly larger than the females, and both were otherwise almost indistinguishable to the humans save for a series of half a dozen paler blue rings which ran along the length of the long and playful tails of the females. All in all, they found the natives to be a very simple and largely pleasant race, not at all threatening to the humans though their ability to imitate the gestures and speech of their visitors despite their lack of understanding was quite astonishing, and a factor that eventually led to the expedition’s science detail’s decision to refer to them as mirrorlings.

    The two groups sat and attempted to engage for some time before Kelly finally decided that they had best return to their camp before the sun set. All in all it had proved to be an educational, if not impromptu expedition, but he had not forgotten about the rest of his crew and travellers back at the pod and knew that there were still quite a few chores that needed to be completed before they would be able to safely settle-in for the night. The group motioned that they needed to leave and the creatures showed an obvious sadness at the prospect, their leader immediately calling for several of the others to bring a small supply of plants and roots to their visitors for the return journey, to which they again tried their best to show an obvious gratitude. In return for the gesture, Reverend Flaherty removed a small gilded crucifix from around his neck, and ever so gently motioned to A’thal Worl to take it. The leader of the mirrorlings soberly regarded the strange object for a moment, first cautiously sniffing and then tasting it before gingerly placing the icon around its own neck and smiling awkwardly, to the laughter of the rest of Kelly’s group. Both mirrorling and human alike rose and bowed, and Dahl conversed with his leader for a brief moment alone before finally leading the humans from the dwelling and back out into the clearing once more.

    It quickly became clear to them that Dahl had sought permission to take leave of the village and lead Kelly and his group back to where they first met, and so after waving goodbye to the strange inhabitants of the clearing (a gesture they clearly neither understood nor reciprocated), they re-entered the forest and started back along the way they had come. By the time they finally returned to what could only scarcely be called a path, the planet’s sun was already beginning its slow descent below the canopy above them. The growing darkness quickly brought the strange and ancient forest to life, and for all of the primitive wildlife they had already seen there must have still been thousands of new and hidden creatures obscured in the shadows that began to chirp and whistle all around them as they went. Though their hike had been quite gruelling at times, the buzz of the native fauna and the sudden drop in temperature caused spirits among the group to soar, and many almost skipped along as they took in the unique and enriching experience of simply being there.

    All of a sudden, when direct sunlight completely ceased to filter down through the trees, Kelly and the group noticed that Dahl was starting to grow more and more tense and began nervously peering into the blackness between the boughs, and chattering lowly and unintelligibly once more to himself as he went. For whatever reason, the growing dark seemed to make the creature uneasy which in turn caused Kelly and his men to hold their weapons closer and raise their own awareness for anything around them that seemed out of place, or which might resemble a threat. They had no way of knowing exactly what else might lurk in the unexplored corners of the strange new world, and decided that they would take no chances, particularly if nightfall had caused a native inhabitant like Dahl to grow wary.

    Eventually they reached the lower foothills leading into their encampment just as darkness closed in completely, and the group allowed themselves to finally breathe easy as the way ahead became wanly lit by the powerful halogen lamps of their camp that penetrated the forest in front of them. As they neared their destination, Kelly began to take notice of several of the large pitcher plants at the edge of his line of sight resting quietly and ominously on either side of the path like clandestine sentinels. He wasn’t quite sure if it was a trick of the changing light, but he could have sworn that several of their dark silhouettes appeared to have broken apart since they last passed them earlier that afternoon, as though they had somehow opened out and bloomed with the setting of the sun. “I must be seeing things,” he mumbled quietly, rubbing his eyes and decided to leave it until morning to return for a closer look knowing full well that there was no way he would be able to draw Dahl, who was for some reason growing still more nervous despite being so close to camp, anywhere near them.

    Eventually however, curiosity got the better of him and he picked up his pace to draw alongside the mirrorling, pointing to the dim forms in the shadows. “Dahl, what are those things..?” he asked, not entirely confident he would be rewarded with an intelligible response. “What do those plants do, to make you so afraid – what happens here when the light goes away..?” Dahl’s eyes darted from the path only momentarily before he picked up speed himself, and after searching his mind for a moment for an appropriate human term, managed to reply with only a single word he’d heard the captain utter earlier that afternoon:

    “Hurt.”

    Kelly was confused by Dahl’s response and understandably rattled, and he too picked up his pace, calling back to the others to follow suit. Within moments, the group entered the clearing with a sigh of relief and began fanning-out to rejoin the rest of their expedition. Despite there having been much still left to do before they could settle in for the night, Lieutenant Tannock, Kelly and the rest of the group were a little surprised not to see a single member of their landing party either at work in the camp, milling about the clearing nor approaching them to welcome them back and ask about their journey into the wild. Instead, it seemed eerily quiet in the clearing. Although all lamps had been lit and the windbreaks erected as their captain had requested, the encampment was deathly silent and not a single soul appeared to be present, at least not out in the open. They noticed also that there were now a number of strange shells of a dry, organic nature that weren’t there when they left and which littered the ground in several places throughout the camp, causing Dahl to whimper softly for some reason as he passed them by.

    Kelly instinctively bent down to pick one of the strange casings up as they walked but as he reached to take it, Dahl suddenly rushed forward and let out a piercing yelp, slapping his hand and causing him to immediately draw back. The mirrorling then regarded Kelly momentarily with a look of unmistakable fear and admonition before bounding away to safety and cowering behind Reverend Flaherty’s legs, trembling in fright. Kelly rose to his full height and simply stared down at the casing, which he now came to realise appeared less benign and more closely reminiscent of a sort of short and thick discarded snake skin. He turned to the others, ordering them to “Keep your eyes peeled for anything suspicious, and don’t any of you touch these things for any reason.. at least until we know exactly what they are. Something’s got the little guy spooked,” he looked warily around the camp, “I don’t want to take any chances.”

    Jim approached Kelly as the group stood near the edge of the clearing, and asked, “Captain, where in the world is everyone..? We were the only group supposed to leave the camp today. If I didn’t know any better I’d say something’s up.” “Yeah, you might be right” he replied, “I’ve got a funny feeling myself – it’s a little too quiet.” He called softly to the rest of his men, “Get the reverend and the rest behind you, Coates and Daniels,” he addressed his two junior officers, “take flank and follow us around the clearing. Let’s head for the pod, and try not to draw attention to ourselves.” The group quickly assembled in a formation with Dahl and the reverend at their centre and slowly made their way around the camp, keeping close to the shadows and straining their ears for any sort of sound from the settlers they’d left behind.

    After clearing thirty or forty yards unchallenged and upon reaching the pod, Kelly slid the access card that hung loosely around his neck into the receiver to the right of the hatch and punched-in his entry code. The door slid softly open with a low hiss, and at once the small craft lit up and beckoned the group inside. Kelly ordered his two junior officers to remain with Dahl (who was by now almost inconsolable) and the rest of the party outside the gangway and motioned for Jim to join him in cautiously entering the ship, its pale white interior lights pulsating as they drew on energy cells now set to a lower output in order to conserve what little power was stored for the return journey to the orbiter. They tiptoed aboard, holding their weapons high and nodded to each other to indicate that the pod was empty. Kelly lowered his weapon and crossed the entryway to approach the doors to the bridge that had for some reason been closed and secured. This in of itself was strange, as entry into the cockpit of the craft was strictly open only to his officers, and as a rule only ever sealed from the inside.

    Raising their weapons aloft once more, the pair stood at attention and ready for anything as Kelly once more swiped the access panel for the heavy automated doors and the entry to the cockpit slowly slid open. Immediately they could detect movement from within the bridge and the pair didn’t waste a second, rushing in with their rifles drawn and yelling loudly for the occupants to “Freeze..! Drop whatever you’re doing and put your hands where we can see them..!” Two of the company’s settlers, a young man and woman were found to be sitting at the controls to the vessel and as the soldiers entered they both immediately swung around in their chairs in unison and without warning leapt towards them, fists flailing and both uttering a deep and unsettling growl that neither of the men had ever heard another human being make before.

    Quick as a flash, their training took over and they each thrust the butts of their rifles directly at the settlers’ heads with a precision strike, successfully knocking both of them completely out cold before either could land a blow. Both bodies slumped to the floor of the pod with an almighty crash, and once again the ship fell silent. In that moment, Jim and Kelly could do little more then just stare at each other in astonishment, neither of them expecting to be met with aggression nor understanding what on Earth could have made the two react so violently, or for that matter what two unskilled settlers with zero flight experience could have possibly been doing at the ship’s computer. “What the hell..!” Jim started, “Since when are civilians given access to the pod, and what was with that noise..?!” he asked in exasperation. “I don’t know,” Kelly panted, “but I’ll promise you, I’m going to find out.” They then both knelt low toward the inert bodies on the floor for a closer look as Daniels, still guarding the entryway to the ship called in from outside:

    “Hey, guys,” his voice could be heard echoing through the pod, “what the hell was that commotion..? Is everything alright in there..?” Kelly responded, “Yeah, yeah.. just a couple of civilians, dicking around at the console. Probably drunk or something. Just keep an eye out for more out there, will you..?” He reached down and clasped the shoulder of the female settler who was lying face down beside the captain’s chair, but as he was about to turn her body over to ascertain an identity, his stomach flipped as he noticed something strange and unusual resting at the base of her skull. “What in the weird..? Hey Jim,” he pressed two fingers gently into a sizeable bulge that had formed under the skin, roughly the size and shape of a small toy football, “get a load of this.” “What is that, is it some kind of tumour..?” Jim replied. Before Kelly could answer, the dark growth beneath his fingers suddenly moved and his hand immediately drew back like a shot.

    “Holy shit..!” Jim exclaimed, as the bulge continued to writhe and shiver beneath her skin, appearing to bury itself deeper into the settler’s neck. Her body twitched slightly as it did, and then the same reaction began to suddenly occur in the male settler as though the two were somehow linked. “What is it, is there some kind of THING in there..?” Jim asked, incredulously. Before either of them could articulate a guess, the sound of a loud round of rifle fire split the air inside the cabin and the pair heard the panicked shouts of both Coates and Daniels as they hollered and argued with someone or something outside the pod. “Quickly – cuff these two and let’s get the hell out of here, now..!” Like a flash, they drew restraints from their utility belts and swiftly fastened them around the wrists of the two unconscious settlers before racing out of the pod and down the gangway to join the rest of the team who they found to now be either crouching against the hull of the pod or else firing erratically into the shadows around the encampment.

    As soon as they left the rear doors, Jim and Kelly were confronted by a deep and familiar growl that gurgled from the throats of nearly two dozen of the other remaining settlers who had rushed from the forest moments earlier and were now surrounding the ship in a wide circle, staring coldly at the two privates who were firing sporadically at the feet of any that dared to try and approach them. “Captain, captain..!” screamed Daniels, “They just appeared like a swarm out of nowhere and rushed right through us. Three of them, they just grabbed the reverend and dragged him out into the trees, we’re holding the rest off but they’ve gone completely out of their minds..!” The settlers growled and gargled menacingly in the blinding light, but didn’t dare to come any closer while the officers had their weapons trained on them. Several of the science detail were cowering with their faces buried in their hands, simply refusing to acknowledge the situation and although Kelly strained his eyes against the glare searching the clearing for any sign of Dahl, the strange little creature was now nowhere to be seen.

    As his sight readjusted to the bright light of the external lamps, Kelly was able to distinguish the same misshapen growth on the necks of each and every one of the settlers that their counterparts within the pod had shared and the same cold and lifeless look in their eyes. A number foamed at the mouth and all were absolutely filthy, their clothing torn in places and their arms and faces caked with mud and some sort of thick sap-like resin from somewhere, as though they had been tearing at the vegetation of the forest with their bare hands, or pulling open the stems of those bulbous, foul smelling..

    “The pitchers..!”

    Kelly could now detect the same heavy, rotting odour from the plants that wafted across from the settlers and immediately realised that whatever it was that had caused them to behave this way, those strange, evil looking plants had something to do with it. He addressed the defending detail, ordering Tannock to join the other two in threatening fire and called out to their attackers in the vain hope of appealing to whatever reason remained and perhaps negotiating a way out of a what had become a quickly escalating situation.

    “Hey..! It’s me, Miller. What is it you want..?” he yelled, “What’s come over you all..? What happened here while we were gone..?” No answer came from the group, who seemed only to be shuffling ever so slowly toward them, testing the limits of the humanity of his officers who were still reluctant to fire directly at them. Unexpectedly, at Kelly’s questioning a lone member of the film crew that had been forced to stay behind with the others stepped boldly forward from the throng and extended his right arm toward him, as though pointing. For several seconds, no-one on either side moved a muscle until the cameraman replied, speaking with the same thick and uncomfortable gargle that the rest of the group had made:

    “We want.. the ship. Give us the ship.”

    The hairs on the back of Kelly’s neck bristled as a wave of fear coursed through his body. “What does he mean, give us the ship.” Tannock asked, “None of these civilians even knows how to start the engines, what the hell is he talking about..?” “I don’t know,” Kelly stammered, “but I do know that there are far more of them than there are of us, and if they decide to rush us – we’re done for.” Kelly, who was himself a tall and imposing figure arched his back and stood at full height, replying defiantly, “The ship is ours, you can’t have it. What’s the matter with you people, come to your senses. Tell me what happened here, what can we do to make you stop with this, this insanity..?” He asked in a last appeal to whatever or whoever he was addressing, now realising that somehow it wasn’t only the same meek civilian he had landed with so many hours earlier who now stood in front of him. “We can help you, all of you.. just back away from the pod.”

    “The ship is OURS,” came a last gargle from the other man, “You can only submit..

    .. you can only DIE.”

    At this, the settlers all threw their arms wide as one and with a horrifying, inhuman shriek which cut them to the core burst into a full sprint, running straight toward the pod and those defending it. Kelly screamed at his officers to “Open fire now, take them out – as many as you can..!” His crew immediately let loose a volley of rifle fire at the group, seemingly killing a half dozen in seconds as the rest rushed forward undeterred. Some had even taken direct shots to the legs and torso from the volley, but somehow incredibly still scrambled ahead, almost baying for blood as they closed distance with the officers. Kelly knew they didn’t stand a chance – there were simply too many, and they seemed to be behaving with an almost animalistic frenzy. He was done for.. they were done for. For the first time in his life he prayed quietly to himself, hoping that whatever was about to happen to them would happen quickly and painlessly.

    Suddenly, just as the mass of flailing bodies were about to reach them, everyone was stopped dead in their tracks by a loud and sudden blast of noise from the far off in the forest behind them. From beyond the shadows, the piercing, dissonant sound of a loud and mighty trumpet split the night and brought the settlers to a complete standstill, as though they somehow recognised the shrill and discordant noise. Kelly searched the darkness for the source of the sound as his officers held their weapons still, shaking with adrenaline and fear but couldn’t make out anything for the silhouettes of the trees surrounding them. Only a moment later, the high and musical voices of what must have been hundreds of diminutive mirrorlings erupted from the edge of the clearing as a veritable army of the small creatures flooded into the light of the camp and rushed towards the settlers brandishing all manner of fashioned clubs, rocks and other strange and unfamiliar weapons.

    The invading mirrorlings quickly overran and toppled their assailants in seconds, throwing the settlers roughly to the ground and holding them prone in the dirt, several of the small creatures to a man. It took the weight of two or three of them to secure each flailing limb as the settlers growled and violently thrashed about, however in a few short minutes, each and every one of them had been pinned face down and held secure. Jim, Kelly and the rest could simply not believe it. They couldn’t have been followed, and there was no way for the tribes to have anticipated what was unfolding – unless somehow they knew. Somehow, the mirrorlings had understood what was to take place that night, and they had been assembled to protect their new friends from harm. From the rear of their number, what must have been several villages worth in all, Dahl suddenly emerged once more and approached Kelly, a grave look of concern crossing his small and cat-like face. Kelly was dumbfounded and couldn’t contain himself, and quickly moved forward to thank him.

    “Dahl,” he started with a gasp, “What happened to these people, and how.. how did you know..?” He remembered his manners, and thanked the small creature a hundred times over as he looked down at the rest of his companions who were still writhing violently and trying unsuccessfully to free themselves. Dahl only nodded in reply, still looking extremely worried and deftly raised a small and curious metal blade he held at one side, which Kelly had only just noticed was there. It was stranger still that the thin weapon appeared to be extremely old and intricately fashioned, and apparently far beyond the technological capabilities of a tribe of creatures that he regarded as little more than hunter-gatherers with no discernible ability to have forged. Before Kelly could attempt to form another question, his eyes bulged in shock as Dahl reached down suddenly and in one swift move, cut a long and precise slit across the base of the nearest prone settler’s neck and in almost the same motion yanked a thick, dark and worm-like parasite from the open wound.

    Coates and Daniels retched and Jim could only articulate the words, “Christ, I’m going to be sick,” as the long, savage looking parasite wriggled and writhed in Dahl’s tightly-clenched paw, its two small, dark eyes flitting around menacingly as its pincers sliced the air either side of a wide mouth that supported row upon row of thin, needle-like teeth. “The statues..!” remembered Kelly, as he finally recognised the same sinister features that adorned the monstrous architecture that lined the esplanade of the temple complex atop the hill. Dahl understood Kelly’s expression at once, and nodded solemnly before raising the relic once more and dispatching the cold creature with one fell strike before casting its lifeless and disgusting body to the ground.

    Dahl then turned to Kelly without so much as a pause, and with a tiny paw reach out and clasped the captain’s hand. All of a sudden, Kelly felt his subconscious yanked sharply in a direction he didn’t know existed and through an ability miles beyond his own comprehension which left him completely helpless, the mirrorling somehow connected with his new friend through a power that can only closely be likened to telekinesis. In the space of a few short seconds that felt like a lifetime, Dahl showed to Kelly the true nature of his people, flooding his mind with their history; the rise and fall of a once advanced and civilised empire that spanned the entirety of the planet, their own hubris and the usurping of their leaders to the sinister cunning of the pitcher worms and their hateful, twisted desires.

    He learnt that the mirrorlings were once the gentle and diligent caretakers of Kepler 442b, having evolved in the beginning in harmony with the lush environment of their world and the multitude of strange and docile creatures with which they shared their version of paradise. As generations passed however, and is sadly the want of much intelligent life their mastery over the land and its native life excelled to a point where they risked losing it all to their own desire to create and destroy, much as Kelly’s own people had done in the great wars of Earth in the twentieth century.

    One fateful night many generations ago, the skies above their world grew light as day and rained down fire across the continents as many thousands of great and terrible meteors bombarded their towns and cities, destroying much of what they had taken centuries to create. It was soon after this catastrophic event that the first of those awful pitchers took root, and the worms crawled forth to overcome their people and enforce their evil will just as they must have done many times to countless planets before. Theirs was an alien plague that sought to conquer world after world, moving on as a swarm of spores when all the wealth and beauty of a host world had been usurped. Through their cunning and the knowledge of past hosts, they would manufacture a dystopia wherever they landed and once their appetite had been sated, find a way to depart the ruin they left in their wake.

    After a great civil war in which the lives of a great majority of the mirrorlings were tragically extinguished as the invaders took control, a dark age of oppression which lasted centuries soon followed as the worms took their best and brightest as hosts, forcing the defeated population to toil restlessly to create those same monuments and temples that Kelly had visited shortly upon arrival. The aliens ruled their world as gods for an age, cruelly working the mirrorlings to satisfy their every need and conspiring among themselves to develop a means by which to leave the planet’s surface and return once more to the stars, and to their next conquest. It wasn’t until one day, by the sheer force of will and the greatest secrecy, that a rebellion was formed.

    As the sun set on another hot Summer’s eve in which more of the pitcher worms’ young would crawl forth from the plants to take hosts, every last free mirrorling took up arms and slew their oppressors, tearing down the temples their kin had been worked to death to create and defiantly burning every one of those sinister plants that they could find. Unfortunately, their own numbers by then had declined drastically and although they returned to the forests wiser than to ever again become an attractive host for the evil seedlings, by now they lacked the force and technology to do away with them completely. From out of those dark and frightful days, an uncomfortable and ever vigilant coexistence was established that lasted from then until Kelly and his group arrived, and the ambitions of the pitcher worms was reawakened.

    After only a moment, the pain and sheer flood of emotion became too much for his own primitive mind to bear, and Kelly was forced to disconnect from the experience, falling to his knees in shock as the sheer enormity of their misunderstanding finally dawned on him.

    The strange translucent larvae that Kelly and his men had been offered earlier that afternoon he realised were nothing other than the infant form of the same pitcher worms that had swarmed the remaining settlers shortly after his party had left the camp, harvested by the safe light of day by the mirrorlings and devoured ceremoniously as a symbol of their undying hatred toward their former oppressors. They were apparently of little danger in that state, lacking the strength to break the tough skin of a mirrorling until fully matured and otherwise harmlessly digested en masse as a final act of rebellion.

    The monuments that Kelly had stumbled upon that morning had been erected at the height of the enslavement of Dahl’s people, and were it not for their technological unreadiness to carry the worms off from the planet’s surface and towards the stars the rebellion that freed the mirrorlings from the grip of terror and slavery so many generations earlier might never have taken place. The mirrorlings knew, and had learnt through the harshest of lessons in the most brutal of ways that what might well be the paradise of Kepler 442b to some hid in its deepest shadows a far darker reality that few had the experience with which to coexist.

    A’thal, Dahl and the rest of their kin quickly set about extracting the remaining parasites from the settlers and an already freed Reverend Flaherty was brought forward from the throng to rejoin the rest of his fellow humans, still mostly in deep shock and yet to fully regain control of their senses. The stress of being made vessels for the sinister and highly intelligent will of the worms had taken a heavy toll on many of them, and despite assurances that they would be fine again in time, Kelly ordered his officers to watch over them for the remainder of the night and for every man, woman and child to remain vigilant for any more of the small parasites that might attempt to infiltrate the camp. After making sure that the area was indeed clear, the mirrorlings made it known that they would now need to return once more to the watch and safety of their own villages, and Kelly promised them that he would make arrangements at first light to take his people off of the planet’s surface and back to the skies from whence they had come.

    Now lucid and beyond gratitude, Reverend Flaherty thanked A’thal at length, who in turn attempted politely to return the small crucifix that he had been gifted earlier that day. The action was met with only a smile, as Michael responded; “No, that’s yours my friend. Keep it safe as a reminder that today, as on all others, someone out there is watching over you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, and God bless. Until we meet again.” A’thal bowed low, and waved awkwardly before rejoining his brethren and slowly marching them back into the surrounding woods and to their respective homes. After several long moments only Dahl remained among them, and when everyone in his party was accounted for Kelly knelt low and addressed the mirrorling one last time.

    “Dahl, my friend. We can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for us this day. The people of Earth, and I daresay others that might have suffered if those creatures had once more found their way off of this strange world and out into the stars are indebted to you.” He was tired, and tried his best not to appear too emotional in spite of himself. “I’m not sure how we can ever repay you, other than to ensure that none of our kind return before we are able to find a way ourselves to best those devils that your kind have once beaten. Thank you, for everything.” He reached down to clasp the creatures paw, and although the gesture was foreign to him, Dahl reciprocated and bowed his own head in acknowledgement, closing both his saucer eyes as he did.

    Moments later, the first of the mirrorlings to greet the travellers turned and rejoined his tribe in the forest, leaving Kelly and his officers to attend to their wounded and take stock of their situation. Although they all remained safely locked in the pod throughout the remainder of the night, scarce few words were exchanged and not a single one of them dared to sleep a wink for fear of what might happen if, somehow, one of those strange and awful worms managed to find a way on-board the craft.

    Early the next morning, the pod’s engines fired and the human travellers left the surface of Kepler 442b, soaring swiftly through the planet’s atmosphere before finally docking once more with the waiting Endeavour. Before commanding her gravity drive be primed for the fastest possible speed out of orbit, Kelly was obliged to send a single brief preceding message back to the Lunar Station to be forwarded to the World Government’s Space Association. His message read:

    “20860309 – WGSA Off-World Communication. Origin Kepler 442b. Despite all indications the planet is void of life and geologically unstable. Uninhabitable, and an extreme danger to human life. Avoid at all costs.

    We’re coming home.

    End transmission.”

    Here is Another Instalment from Alluvion:

    07. A Long Road Ahead

    The mood among those left behind at Nevalı Çori following the march of their brethren to the capital had been one of a deep and uncomfortable nervousness and worry. Although Andar had stayed behind with several of the other hunters, their constant and almost daily need to leave the village in search of fresh food in the absence of the rest of their people had left Sura and her two children feeling, at times, extremely scared and vulnerable. The women and children of the village had no way of knowing exactly how long their husbands and fathers would be gone for, nor could they know if it was even likely that they would survive serving in their king’s campaign against the west. For many of the women, it was almost as if they had already been widowed, with no guarantee that they would ever again have their loved ones return to restore the balance in their lives and for Sura, the reality of her husband’s imprisonment caused this feeling to become even more intense.

    In spite of this, she had gone to incredible lengths to keep Harna and especially little Kirti’s spirits high, and while he was not away on the hunt Andar too had devoted a great deal of time and face to making sure that they were both kept distracted, happy and healthy. In truth, Andar had always somewhat envied his half-brother’s lot in life, he himself never yet having married or fathered children and he had embraced the opportunity to get closer to his niece and nephew, basking in the love and attention that they had always lavished on their uncle. It had been nearly a week since Skara had been cast in bonds and taken from them, and no messengers had yet been sent for nor arrived from Çatalhöyük to bring them any news of his situation. They could only hope and pray to the Gods that he had somehow found mercy in the court of He-Tauhasa.

    On the morning of the sixth day, Andar returned from the hunt to find Sura weeping openly in the house that she shared with his brother, and had tried his hardest to comfort her. Both of her children had left to play by the river, leaving her to finally feel free to let her own guard down and once she had regained her composure, he asked her why she wept so. Fighting back tears, Sura responded with a question, “Andar, you are my husband’s brother. I know of the heresies that He-Xur has accused him, and I fear and understand that everything that he has said and claimed to have seen will not find favour among the Seers..” Again, she wept and again Andar consoled her, cooing and gently trying his best to calm her down.

    She went on, “I can’t claim to know whether those warnings that he has given us carry any truth, but if my love does not return to us can we really let him go to his death in vain..? How can we just stay here and allow everything that he might give his life for to be made meaningless..?” As the words crossed her lips and the harsh reality that the love of her life might already be dead sank in, Sura finally completely broke down, sobbing openly and uncontrollably. Andar too had begun to feel a deep sorrow at this thought, however his own misery quickly turned to anger and he cursed Ihreikas and the Seers out loud and with every vile term that he could remember. “No-one should have such power as to strip a man of his life and livelihood over such trivial things.” he said angrily, “Where is the honour in such an act..? To hell with Ihreikas!” He burned, and she wept.

    The two sat quietly within her home for a long while, and Andar decided to entertain the possibility that those things that his brother had believed and which had led to their situation might have some value. His thoughts turned to the Seers, and he considered much to his initial disgust that what the Watchers had told to Skara might in fact, somehow, have come from a place of wisdoms beyond his own ability to comprehend. After all, he had trusted in those stories their father had told them when they were younger, of the knowledge of the Ancients and of their almost godlike understanding of the ways of the world.

    “Sura,” he asked her, “have you ever known your husband to be a man easily taken by the deceptions of others..? Can you recall a time that Skara might have ever been led from reason by those seeking to make a fool of him..?” Sura looked up at Andar, sniffed and wiped her eyes, now able to speak again, “I have always found him to be wary,” she replied, “even more so than most and sometimes even to the point where it has driven me to complete and utter distraction.” She laughed out loud for a second, reminded of the stubbornness and general skepticism of her husband whenever she had tried to spark up a conversation about the godhead, divine signs or the Seers’ abilities to interpret them. Andar went on:

    “Skara spoke of our need to get to safety, to return to the plateau before another week passes. I have never in my life seen him so taken by the prophesies of any order, nor so deeply concerned at the possibility that all our lives might be in danger. I wonder..” he trailed off in thought, lost for a moment before continuing, “I wonder what might be gambled if we were to make such a journey and return. Those who have left for the capital will not arrive back at the village for many weeks, if everything that I believe Ihreikas has in mind will come to pass. We just might be able to make the journey ourselves, to reach the city of Uru-Mah which I too have seen and if in fact no great disaster comes to pass, we might also return without He-Xur, the King or anyone else becoming any the wiser.” He stroked his thick, blonde beard as he mulled the thought over, and the more that he did the more he began to feel as though not only could they pull it off, but that he might just owe it to Skara at least to try.

    Sura looked up at her husband’s brother with wide doe eyes, and for the first time in days he saw in them a small glimmer of hope. She too knew that there was every possibility that Skara had not been truthfully informed of those events that he had believed would come to pass, however with his future uncertain and her facing the very real possibility that she might never again be held in the arms of the man to whom she had given herself, she felt that such a journey might in some small way vindicate him.

    “Andar,” she said softly, “I think we should go. For your brother’s sake, I think we should take those left in the village and go to the plateau. If for nothing else, and should the worst come to pass, we would be forever remiss to ignore Skara’s warning. We must.” They each drew a heavy breath, both finding new hope in the prospect of the journey and relieved that they might at least have the opportunity to validate Skara’s fate, whatever it might be. “We should speak with the others,” Andar said, “prepare provisions and take our people north, if only to be safe.”

    As the first light of dawn reached over the tree line atop the western ridge, Skara, Omer and his three boys left the rustic log cabin that they had called their home for so many years and made their way cautiously into the dense woodlands to the east. They had not been visited during the night by any of the King’s huntsmen, Skara guessing that they too had made camp somewhere below the ridge and he knew that they would more than likely resume their pursuit as soon as morning had broken. The five of them had gathered and tied a small store of food, stones and arrows in bundles of heavy cloth which they then fastened across their shoulders, and set off along one of the many trails that Omer’s sons had carved into the hillside.

    The journey was slow going at first, as the forest to the east was extremely old and had grown out of a sharp incline, and the uneven ground was still very damp and in some places made finding a foothold quite difficult. About an hour into their descent, the group reached a wide granite shelf on the side of the hill that opened out into a steep cliff face overlooking the valley, and the four of them paused momentarily to assess how they might best navigate their way down to the bottom. Omer had suggested that they continue to their left, working their way along a more even path which followed the ridge north before allowing them to gently descend to the lower slopes. Asher however argued that they should ascend the shelf south and then climb down the bare rock face, as this would mean that they would reach the bottom quicker, and that their pursuers might be thrown off their trail as their feet left the soft ground of the forest floor. The two bickered at length about which option was the most sensible, prompting the other three to sit and rest momentarily by the wayside.

    After several minutes spent debating, the group suddenly heard the unmistakeable crack of branches breaking underfoot, before the air was split by the cry of a man who had fallen into one of many pits the boys had dug to trap game along the ridge. All five men froze instantly, peering into the harsh morning light and strained to hear whether there were any further noises when all of a sudden, three dark figures ran wildly from the trees below and called out to them, rushing to ascend the rocky outcrop and met them in combat. They had been spotted..! Omer quickly beckoned his three sons to move past him and ordered them to climb the rise and make for the rocky cliff that Asher had earlier suggested they descend. He and Skara held their spears out wide, and they too backed away from the approaching men, closely following Omer’s sons to the edge of the cliff.

    The hunters were closing distance rapidly, their war cries filling the air as the five took turns at carefully finding their way off from the rise on which they had been trapped. Several more arrows whistled past them, missing their mark as one of the hunters stopped still and fired in an attempt to strike them before they descended past the rocky lip. Skara knew that they would not all be able to make it over before their pursuers reached them. He turned and dropped his weapon, and realising that they held a slight advantage in finding themselves on higher ground began hurling large stones from the outcrop down the incline in the direction of the attackers.

    Several of the smaller rocks caused their pursuers to lose their footing, but the hunters were still gaining speed and within moments, one of them had caught up to the party, wildly waving his spear about and trying to land a blow on Omer who did his best to block the sharp point of the other man’s weapon. The three of them tussled and fought to hold their footing until eventually Skara and Omer formed a barrier by crossing their spears and managed to hurl the man back, sending him rolling away in the direction that he had come.

    Omer knew then that they would not stand a chance at defeating the three men in close combat once they had all reached the party. Skara was a solid fighter, and on any other day might have been able to hold his own against two such men but he was still tired, and his injured feet prevented him from holding ground as well as he otherwise might have been able. Omer himself was no longer the strong and robust man that he once was either, however as he looked around them a plan quickly dawned on him. They might not have had a chance in close combat, but there was a way that he might be able to knock the men from the ridge and send them crashing down into the forest below. He quickly turned to Skara, ordering him to “Follow my boys down into the rocks – take them off this god-forsaken cliff as fast as you can and leave these three to me. Go, now..!” He shoved Skara roughly back towards the southern end of the rise, and turned once more to face their attackers.

    Skara was reluctant to leave his uncle, but sensed in his tone that he had figured out a plan with which to deal with the three and so turned and began to make his way down the rise. As he gripped the rock face, he turned to look after his uncle one last time, calling out, “I hope you know what you’re doing, Omer. Hurry up and follow us to the bottom, and don’t try anything foolish..!” He found his footing and slowly began to make his way down the cliff as Omer sized up the three men who were all now nearing where he stood, and then turned his attention toward a large pile of boulders he had earlier noticed lying against the face of the rise.

    In the split second that he stood there sizing up which of the rocks he would choose, the face of his brother Agar flashed into his mind. He remembered the events of that fateful night, during which his own pride had caused him to lose the dearest person in his life. He recalled his failure to move that one final stone which then dragged his brother from the cliff on which he had stood and out into oblivion below. From out of the emptiness that he had felt ever since that day, he suddenly found a deep well of anger, a rage that fountained up within him and which would give him the strength that he knew he needed to protect his nephew and his own sons. No longer would he remain crushed by the events of that night, so many years ago. No more would the burden of his own failing strength hold him back. No more..!

    Omer let loose a monstrous roar that boomed throughout the valley and turned to reach for the largest boulder that sat by the wayside. Skara, himself only just over the summit of the ridge raised his head over the top when he heard his cry and was just in time to witness his uncle grip a massive stone of incredible size and heave it off of the ground

    For the first time since they were reunited, Skara did not see the grizzled and weary man that had greeted him so distantly the night before. Instead, the Omer of his youth was there, the knots and threads of the powerful muscles in his back tightening and holding fast as he tore the boulder from its position and hoisted it up to the height of his chest. The three hunters were mere yards away from Omer at this point, the bowman running to join his comrades in the fray but as he roared they stopped dead in their tracks, realising what was about to happen. Omer turned slightly as he held the stone aloft, calling back to Skara, “Move, child – go quickly and take my boys to safety..!”

    He then pivoted left and with a resounding cry, tossed the massive stone in the direction of the hunters. The boulder was almost three feet wide, and the ridge on which they stood only slightly wider and so the stone crashed to the ground with a loud boom and rolled directly into the three men, immediately barrelling two of them off over the side of the cliff face and into the dark forest below. The third man was too far from the edge, and was quickly crushed into the earth by the weight of the stone which moved over his writhing body like a rolling-pin with a sickening crunch. The stone continued down the way for another thirty or forty feet before finally crashing over the edge of the ridge and down into the sea of green below and Omer stopped to catch his breath, peering over the ledge to see if there was any sign of the two hunters that had been forced off of it. As he coughed and struggled to regain his composure, he found the two of them lying prone in the dirt at the bottom, several feet away from each other. The drop itself must also have been a good forty feet, and to his relief neither of the assailants appeared to have survived.

    He clicked his tongue as he walked over to the third man, finding the weight of the boulder to have crushed his skull and burst his torso open like a fresh fruit, leaving a smear of dark blood trailing behind it as it rolled away. Satisfied, Omer nodded and thought to himself, “For what it’s worth I may be old, but by the Gods when push comes to shove – I’m still the second strongest man in the valley.” He then prayed a silent prayer for his brother, and dedicated his feat to the memory of the only man in his life to have bested him in a show of strength. Omer turned and began to move back to the southern edge of the ridge to rejoin the others, however just as he was about to call down to the four of them, the hairs on the nape of his neck stood on end and something in the back of his mind made him somehow aware that he was once again not alone on the trail.

    From where he stood, Omer could see that Skara and his sons had already cleared the cliff face and moved out to take up a position where they could see him from the ground below. As he leaned over and was about to call out to them, the look of horror on their faces immediately prompted him to turn once more towards the northern end of the ridge, in the direction of where the hunters had left the trees moments earlier.

    Out of the same forest wall strode a fourth man of staggering proportions, dressed head-to-toe in blood red cloth and who sported a familiar polished chest plate emblazoned with the unmistakable sign of the running ram. From the bottom of the ridge, Skara immediately recognised this to be the King’s champion, who now stood stoic at the foot of the rise and glared up at Omer from behind his scarf, his two dark eyes burning at the other man as he sized him up. Strapped to the warriors left arm was a wide, dark wooden shield, also adorned with the white emblem of Ihreikas and in his right hand he carried a cruelly fashioned pike that was fitted with a row of heavy barbs along its length, and which opened out into a long and vicious polished obsidian blade at one end. Skara could not believe that He-Tauhasa had sent his greatest fighter to pursue him, and was immediately frightened for his uncle, calling out:

    “Omer, you cannot stand and fight this man, you must trust me – quickly, make your way down to join us..!” He was suddenly frantic, knowing that his uncle would already have grown tired from his earlier confrontation and feared that he would not be able to defeat the other man who was already ascending the outlook with long measured strides to meet him. Even by the way he moved, Skara could tell that the champion was a highly seasoned fighter, in no way exhibiting the same foolhardy gusto that the three other hunters had shown in rushing to meet them in combat. The warrior held both his arms high at right angles, and carefully navigated the ground ahead as he closed in on Skara’s uncle.

    Omer however was not afraid, and as soon as he could make out the insignia of the house of He-Tauhasa quickly made up his mind that if this was an opportunity to slay a direct representative of the same ruling class that he so secretly despised, he was going to take it. He called back to Skara, declaring boldly, “I have no fear of the King and his servants, boy – stay where you are and pay close attention, and you might just learn a thing or two.”

    “Allow me to show this overdressed city-dweller how we fight in the hills.”

    He kneeled briefly to collect both his own spear and the one that Skara had dropped earlier, and stood his ground as the other man advanced. Skara realised that Omer knew nothing of the soldier he was about to face, and so told his cousins to stay put before rushing to reascend the rock face and join his uncle, finding the way back up the cliff much slower going than the descent. He had only secured his first foothold when the champion closed the distance between himself and Omer, and the two finally met in combat. Wasting no time, the warrior in red proceeded to swing his awful weapon in wide, sweeping arcs, controlling it with one hand and with a powerful continuing motion attempted to force Omer back to the far edge of the ridge.

    Omer was at first unsteady on his feet, backing away slowly from the other man as he watched him deftly handle his weapon and tried to figure out how best to break his defences. He took both spears and, waiting for the champion’s blade to swing right-to-left across his body, crossed his weapons in its path, stopping the soldier’s advance. As he held the other man’s weapon steady, he launched a powerful kick at the warrior which landed square in his chest, causing him to stumble back several feet and withdraw his weapon. It was Omer’s turn now to attack, and he skilfully swung both his spears in a circular motion around his body and ran towards the champion, hoping that he might land a quick blow and catch him off guard, however his opponent quickly recovered from the kick and again moved towards Omer with his shield outstretched, absorbing every strike as it came.

    Seeing this from the cliff, and still too far from the top to join his uncle, Skara felt powerless watching the two men face off. While his uncle was still a large man with a solid frame, his opponent appeared to be much younger and by far the quicker of the two, handling his weapon with an incredible dexterity for a man of his size. As the champion edged closer to Omer, he completely surprised him by breaking into a sudden sprint and rushed shield-first into his spears. Omer’s attack was stopped short and he was knocked backwards and onto the ground, from where he quickly swung his spears at the other man’s legs to try and create distance between the two once more. The champion merely danced around his weapons for several seconds before first trapping one underfoot and then the other which forced Omer to release his grip on the handles as he lay prone in the dirt and now completely defenceless.

    At this point Omer realised that he was in serious trouble, and as his opponent leaned back to swing his savage pike over his body and down toward his head he quickly drew two short hunting knives from his sides and again crossed them to block the warrior’s weapon, its heavy stone blade coming to a stop mere inches from his face. The champion was clearly beginning to grow frustrated at the older man’s resilience, and swing his pike even harder several more times at his opponent who succeeded each time in blocking his strike. Just as Omer felt that he might try to raise himself up to his feet, the champion sharply jerked his weapon on its axis, sending the back end quickly and powerfully into the other man’s unprotected groin. Immediately Omer saw stars, doubling-over where he lay and for a split second, he completely let his guard down. Skara had nearly reached the summit of his climb and was just in time to peer over its edge to see the champion standing over his uncle who was lying bent and in terrible agony.

    As the champion stood over him, he raised his head and stared at Skara from across the ridge. Skara screamed at his uncle to get up, and the soldier in red raised his left arm toward him, pointing first at Skara, and them in a motion imitating the cutting of his own throat dragged his thumb across the width of his neck. Skara’s blood ran cold and he knew what was about to happen yet he was still too far away, still unable to reach him in time to stop it. His cry rang out across the valley as the champion spun his weapon around, and gripped it tightly in the middle with both hands before quickly and savagely plunging the stone blade deep into the soft flesh of his uncle’s throat and down into his chest, twisting it as he did. As Omer tried to draw breath, dark, rich blood fountained out from the wound at the top of his chest, and the cries of his three children pierced the air as they too watched on in horror from the bottom of the ridge.

    The champion’s blade stayed embedded in his opponent for several moments as he stood still and simply watched the other man, waiting for him to die. It was as though the experience had become cathartic; the screams filling the air, the sound of men choking on their own blood. The act of killing had slowly become a joy for the King’s champion, and after seeing Skara in his halls for the first time and then on the battlefield within the great arena, he had approached Ihreikas to request leave of the city in order to carry out his sentence personally. “Execution is one thing,” he had thought to himself, “but a fair fight, combat amongst equals and the hunting of men – this is what a true champion craves.”

    The warrior withdrew his blade from Omer’s neck as his writhing body finally became limp, and he wiped the blood from its edge on his quarry’s cloak before turning his attention to Skara, who had finally ascended the top of the ridge. Killing Omer was incidental, but he was pleased with the effect that it would have on Skara and knew that the anger such an act might instil in him would provide good sport.

    As soon as Skara clambered over the edge, tears still in his eyes to face him, several arrows soared through the air from below the ridge having been fired by his three nephews at the other man. The champion took a knee and held his shield low, catching all three as they reached him. Skara did not wait for their next volley to arrive, moving towards his opponent and stopping ten or twelve feet away from where he stood. He threw his arms wide to show that he was unarmed and, shaking with anger, called out to challenge him:

    “You,” he began, pointing at the soldier, “I know you, I remember you from the halls of Ihreikas. Do you remember me..? You have taken something from me this day, and by the Gods I will make you pay in kind.” He stopped to think then for a moment about how he might go about making true on such a threat, deciding cleverly to appeal to the soldier’s ego. He pointed to the body of his uncle, continuing, “This old-man that you have killed, he was nothing to you. You are a warrior of the King, are you not..?” The champion paused for a moment, breathing heavily and then solemnly nodded, still standing over Omer’s inert body.

    Skara continued, “Then honour your king in fair an equal combat. Fight someone who might challenge you, someone who might beat you,” the champion stiffened and inhaled deeply and audibly through his nostrils. The very idea that he could be bested in single combat brought him close to a rage, but Skara finished, “Fight me, champion. Hand me my uncle’s weapon, that I might strike you down and prove that you are a weakling and a coward after-all..!” He laughed derisively and the champion stood still, however Skara could now see that he had gently begun to shake, his massive, broad shoulders quivering ever so slightly as he finally achieved total apoplexy.

    The red soldier took several paces back from his fallen opponent, his eyes darting warily left to the boys in the forest as he did and spoke then for the first time. Out from behind his red facecloth came an awful voice that rattled with such a deep and coarse tone that it almost resembled the crunch a heavy boot might make on a gravel road. By his pronunciation alone, Skara could instantly tell that the other man no longer owned a tongue, perhaps taken as punishment for an earlier transgression of his own, as the following words, “You – fight..!’ burbled up crudely and uncomfortably from the champion’s throat.

    The warrior pointed to the fallen spears by Omer’s side, gesturing for Skara to pick them up and his breathing suddenly became heavier as he began to work himself up into the kind of frenzy that he needed to sustain in order to last in combat with a man of Skara’s stature. Skara walked over to Omer, his heart filling with sadness as he was finally able to take a closer look at his uncle’s body, and then he too began to feel an anger rising from within. “This man,” he thought to himself, “has robbed me of the chance to know my father’s brother. This man has killed a hunter of the Tau line, and has taken my nephews’ father from them before his time. This man.. will pay with his life..!” He scooped up both weapons and raised his powerful arms wide in a bold gesture of defiance.

    “Vengeance rides on swift wings,” he thought coldly, “and mine will fly fast and true.”

    Here’s a Real Short One, to Break up the Week..

    ‘THE VISITOR’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

    “Open your mouth and take your medicine, or I’ll have no choice but to use force,” promised Stanley as he struggled to keep his patient still. He was doing his very best to administer a carefully prescribed dose of the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine to a particularly troubled inmate, Lyall Murphy, so that he could send the rest of his patients off to sleep without incident. Unfortunately, Lyall had been a disruptive force among the rest of the hospital population for the entirety of that day, kicking and hollering, thrashing about and just generally stirring up dissent among the other patients. Now refusing to swallow his pills, Stanley had taken it upon himself to isolate him in the recreation room in the hope that he might cool off after a little time spent separated from the others, however this had somehow only seemed to fire him up even more.

    As much as Stanley tried to be patient, if he was being honest he had taken just about all he could handle from one individual in a day. He was himself a tall and extremely well built man, known amongst the others as something of a gentle giant but he would often warn them that he’d one day lose his temper and there’d be hell to pay, if he was ever pushed too far. As yet it had never come to that – he was a professional, after all.

    He firmly gripped Lyall’s nostrils, and after a minute the other man was forced to open his mouth once more to breathe. Stanley threw a small plastic cup’s worth of brightly coloured pills down his throat and held his other hand over his mouth until he was confident they had been ingested. Leaning in close, he whispered to Lyall as he rose to leave, “One more outburst like that, and it’s restraints for you – do you understand..?” Lyall suddenly went as white as a sheet, nodded and lay placidly on the floor muttering all manner of delirious nonsense to himself, leaving Stanley free to continue on with his rounds.

    The staff and detainees at Flagstaff Asylum had always shared a tenuous relationship. Local media on several occasions had chosen to run exposés on the treatment of the population, putting the arguably questionable methods of the hospital’s new management under a microscope, but they had always insisted that their treatment of the inmates would stand up to any scrutiny. “Tabloid journalism, at its most pathetic,” was their response, and without any legitimate cases of malpractice making their way into the public domain, interest in the facility eventually faded from the spotlight altogether. The tough love approach seemed to work, and even if there were complaints to be made, the mentally ill were in no position to make them. For most of the staff there, the end well and truly seemed to justify the means.

    Just as Stanley turned out the lights and was about to lock the solid wooden doors once more, Lyall suddenly sat bolt upright, eyes glazed and frothing at the mouth and screamed at the top of his lungs, “You can’t keep us here forever, don’t you see that..? They’re coming for us Stanley – they’ll be here any minute..! They’re coming..!” He then leapt to his feet and rushed to the far end of the room, still screaming, and pounded his fists repeatedly against the concrete walls and barred windows. Stanley could only shake his head and continue on his way down the main corridor of the facility. “It’s a shame that after so long, he still won’t trust me with even the most routine activities.” He sighed, conceding that the job was a thankless one but that he could only do what he could do.

    He spotted another colleague as he walked, a pretty young woman by the name of Wendy Lee who herself had spent the afternoon looking after a different group of patients at the far end of the facility. She winked at Stanley as he passed, and he immediately went bright red. “How are the others doing, Wendy..?” he stopped to ask, his voice almost breaking. “Sleeping like babies, I think we’re in for a quiet one, Stan – touch wood.” she laughed. He had always taken a liking to Wendy, for as long as he could remember. She had such a kind face, and a cute, almost musical laugh that had become contagious among the other workers at the asylum. “Maybe after tonight I should finally go ahead and ask her out for a drink,” he though optimistically to himself. “You never know, right..?”

    Lyall was still belting the walls and windows of the recreation room down the hall and screaming as loud as he could. “Well, almost quiet,” Wendy added, “what’s the matter with that one..?” She gestured with a thumb, to which Stanley gave another sigh, “He’s been like that all afternoon. Won’t sit still, flat-out refuses to take his meds or cooperate. I’m beginning to think we might need to get a little tougher with him. I’ve tried just about every other method that we’ve used with the others, but for some reason he just won’t quit. Sometimes I think in his mind, he runs the place,” he laughed, and so did she. “Well, if he still has the energy in the morning, I’m sure we can look at other options – we’re not licked yet,” she offered. He smiled again, and turned to let her get back to what she was doing.

    No sooner had he left her and was about to turn the key on another cell, a deeper and more ominous noise suddenly boomed throughout the main corridor, quite different to Lyall’s protests. Out of the near-darkness of the far end of the building a loud, low rumble seemed to have come from the direction of the front doors to the eastern wing, which housed most of the more troublesome inmates and in which Stanley now worked. It was well past 9pm, and they had already locked and bolted all of the main entrances and exits to the building in preparation for another long night’s shift. He stopped still for a minute, the hairs on the back of his neck at attention and just stared ahead, ears cocked and straining to discern if the noise continued.

    After a while, the moment seemed to pass and he decided that he must have been hearing things, perhaps just the central heating system firing up (it was a cold August night, after all). There had been no checks scheduled for that night or visitors ever allowed into Flagstaff past sundown, and no reason for that to change. “Pull yourself together, Stanley,” he thought to himself, “It’s not like it’s your first night in the looney bin.” He had been at the facility for nearly four years now, long enough to know when his imagination was getting the better of him. He shrugged his shoulders and continued on his way, whistling nervously.

    Long nights at the asylum often had a way of taking their toll on even the hardiest of the men and women that worked there. It wasn’t uncommon for new staff and nurses to call it quits after only a few weeks on the job as the lengthy shadows, loneliness and strange sounds of the facility got the better of them. It took a special kind of mental fortitude to deal with that environment, and Stanley felt that he was a unique sort of character in his ability to simply shrug it off and keep a cool head, focusing only on the task at hand. The asylum was filled with men and women that needed to be taken care of, simple people with complex problems, but all of them capable of being rehabilitated given the right treatment. It was a difficult calling, but he was more than qualified to handle it.

    Mind back on the job, he finished medicating his next inmate who had also frustratingly chosen to resist, and had only taken a half a dozen steps or so from the cell when he heard the same strange sound again, much louder than before and this time persisting for almost half a minute; Boom! Boom! Boom! He froze dead in his tracks. He could feel the floor under his feet tremble slightly with each loud crash, and several of his colleagues must have also heard it as they too left the cells they were attending to and joined him in the corridor, all looking around uneasily at each other. This time from where he was standing he could clearly see the two solid doors in the distance shake and buckle violently against the force from whatever it was that was on the other side.

    Wendy was suddenly right beside him once more, and was the first of them to speak, “Stanley, did you.. did you hear that too..?” she asked, her voice quivering “What’s making that awful noise – what’s out there?” Most of the power to the facility had already been shut off for the night, and so the common areas were now only bathed in a wan and eerie fluorescent half-light which made things seem all the more hazy and surreal. Before Stanley was able to respond, a familiar shrill and mocking laughter erupted from the hallway behind them and split the uncomfortable pause:

    “They’re here..! Hahaha, I told you they’d come..! They’ve heard me calling, you can’t stop them now. I told you – you’re all finished! Hahaha..!” It was Lyall, who had given up pounding on the walls and now pressed his face against the thick glass of the recreation room doors, calling out through the gap in between. His almost frenzied delivery chilled them to their cores, and they all turned and stared nervously toward Stanley for any sort of direction. On any other night he might have simply ignored Lyall’s warning, but something about tonight felt different. Somehow the shadows cast by the after-hours tubes along the corridor wall seemed somewhat longer than usual, and a little darker. Earlier that afternoon, he could have sworn he’d heard a strange, far-off wail on the wind as he had locked the doors, and he just couldn’t shake a deep and uncomfortable feeling that he was constantly being watched from somewhere, by someone..

    Boom! Boom! Boom!

    The crashing came again from down the hall, almost deafening this time and was accompanied by the unmistakeable sound of strange, muffled voices and splintering wood. Whoever or whatever was on the other side of those doors, it was only a matter of time before the hinges gave way to their relentless pounding, leaving both the staff and inmates at the facility largely unarmed and with nowhere to hide. “What the hell is going on..?” Stanley thought, finally calling out, “Hey..! Who’s there..? Nobody’s allowed in here at after dark – NOBODY, do you hear..?!” He started to panic as the noise continued unabated and reached into his long white coat, unclipping his baton and desperately issuing instructions to the rest of the group. “Travis, Simon – lock the cells and go and get the torches. Wendy, stay close to me, the everyone else go and get out of sight. Hurry, I don’t know how those doors are going to hold..”

    Before he could finish the thought, the front entrance suddenly burst open with a tremendous crash, and a dozen heavily armed special response officers flooded the corridor, weapons drawn and shouting loudly for everyone to “Drop what you’re carrying and get on the floor..!” Wendy threw her arms into the air and laughed an insane, piercing cackle as Stanley immediately charged at the officers, swinging a heavy black baton and screaming madly as he rushed towards them. Dr. Lyall Murphy remained lucid just long enough to cry out desperately from the recreation room, “In here, officers – they’ve locked the staff in the cells and have been force-feeding us their medication all day. Some of them have stopped breathing. Oh god, please – you have to hurry..!”

    Here is the Sixth Chapter from Alluvion:

    06. Return to Nevalı Çori

    Battered, bruised and beyond exhausted, Skara ran as fast as his legs would carry him out through the city gates, putting as much distance as possible as quickly as possible between himself and the ramshackle sprawl of Çatalhöyük. As scattered and confused as the city guard now were, he knew that it would only be a matter of time before He-Tauhasa’s soldiers had either cornered and trapped, or else put the monster called Murmesh to death before then realising that he too had made his escape. He knew also that there were an almost endless number of seasoned hunters and trackers in the service of the king, and that with their skill and better knowledge of the wide, flat lands surrounding the city they would likely close in on him within hours.

    He ran due north for several miles, following the largest of the many rivers that fed the estuary before branching east and making his way quickly and quietly back up the long and gradual incline that his captors had brought him down several days earlier. He was very careful to mask his footsteps, backtracking in several places as he went but he knew that this would do little to slow down the skilled hunters of the south who would be spurred-on by the promises of great reward for his recapture.

    He realised that his only real hope of evading them would be to reach the rolling hills west of the valley, hills which he knew like the back of his hand and where he might at least have a chance at finding refuge either in the company of other southern families nearby the valley, or else otherwise in the thick forests around the edges of the lower lands. It didn’t help that he’d had to make his escape in broad daylight, and although there were dense woods dotting the landscape around the city, there were all too many long stretches of open grassland that he would have to cross before finding any real cover.

    He gritted his teeth and simply ran and ran for hours until his legs ached, his lungs burned and his heart felt as though it would give out at any moment. Already mid-afternoon, the wind was blowing east which favoured him, but carried on every strong gust were the far-off calls and voices of those in pursuit, ever so faint but growing louder as the hours wore away. Eventually, he followed a small stream which he knew would lead him toward higher ground and stopped to rest once he had reached a particularly thick crop of trees, perhaps only one quarter of the way to safety.

    At the top of a rise within the wood he came across a large limestone outcrop from which a small waterfall cascaded, fed from somewhere within the rocks and he knew he could safely stop and drink the water, rest his legs and wash the dozens of small cuts and open wounds on the soles of his feet that he had suffered running barefoot from the city. He drank his fill from where it landed, taking care not to overdo it and run the risk of a cramp before he needed to again press on. To get a better view of the path he had taken and to also discreetly scan for his pursuers, he carefully climbed to the top of the rise and from behind the thick scrub, peered out over the lower lands and across the incline behind him for any sign of movement. Far off in the distance, he could clearly see the dark blotch of Çatalhöyük on the horizon and the telltale plumes of smoke which rose from the many open hearths of the city, and could also make out the tiny, dark shapes of what must have been large hunting parties moving slowly away from it. “Good,” he thought to himself, “they’re such a distance away still that I might actually have a chance at losing them.”

    After several long minutes spent making sure that all were in fact a safe distance away and accounted for, he rose from his position behind the thicket and turned to make his way over the rise and continue on his journey. As he turned to leave however, he heard an unmistakeable whistle shoot past his left ear, followed immediately by a faint splash as something struck the stone behind the waterfall next to him and dropped into the stream below. “Arrows..!” his mind screamed, “They’re already here..!” He froze for two-tenths of a second, terrified his poor legs would not react and carry him to safety as he knew the next one’s aim would be true.

    Thankfully without another moment’s hesitation, he bounded through the dark trees leading out of the rise and launched himself into the thick forest above it, quickly finding a second wind and moving at a speed he didn’t even think was possible. Thoughts raced through his mind as he heard a man’s voice calling out for him to stop, and he considered among many things turning around and facing his attacker head-on. He remembered then that he had nothing practical with which to defend himself, and in spite of his size and strength was at that moment very hungry, weak and almost completely out of breath.

    The forest was dark and damp, and branches whipped and tore at him as he fled. Old cedar trees rose up everywhere, and the higher branches of these interlocked above his head to form a thick ceiling which only let a small amount of light through where gaps had formed. Large slabs of granite jutted out intermittently from the forest floor, which was itself uneven and in places held large pools of murky water. Several times Skara nearly came crashing to the ground as he slipped on fallen logs and rocks all covered in a bright green, slick moss that seemed to grow over everything, and those wounds that he had washed on his feet again tore open in several places as he failed to safely navigate sharper stones and branches. After sprinting for a time, he could no longer hear the footfalls or cries of his pursuer and started to believe that he just might succeed in outrunning him.

    He considered then finding refuge in the canopies above, his eyes darting about as he ran searching for a strong and reliable tree that he might climb to stop leaving tracks, at least until his attacker had caught up to him but he knew that there was still not enough of a distance between them that he could risk doing so unseen. His only option was to run, and the only way to run was forward. He began to tire as he weaved through the trees, his legs now burning and his lungs feeling as though they might explode. “Surely I can’t go on much further,” he thought to himself, “I’m not built for running, and not for such long distances.”

    As his strength faded completely he realised that it was only a matter of time before he would have to slow, and then eventually stop altogether. Just as he was considering whether surrender might in fact be a viable option, the wood through which he was being chased thinned out, and eventually opened into a wide clearing which rose toward what he could only guess were the early beginnings of the rolling hills. He had travelled a great distance, but was still too far away from safety. As he cleared the wall of trees, he immediately veered left and slid haphazardly behind a large group of granite boulders which might have at least offered coverage and protection for several seconds. He had no idea how close his assailant now was (he had not heard his footsteps or cries for several minutes), but exhausted and physically spent, he lay still where he landed and caught his breath as carefully as he dared.

    For several long moments, Skara lay behind a large boulder at the edge of the clearing. “If the archer was as close behind me as I think he was,” he thought to himself, “then there is no way that when he reaches this clearing he’ll believe that I have crossed.” He dared not move however, and keeping his head cocked low strained his ears for any noises from the forest wall. He heard nothing. Not footsteps, not the telltale snap of branches underfoot. Several more minutes passed, and he raised himself up into a crouching position, still careful not to allow any part of his body to be seen over the top of the boulder. His gaze fell upon a strong and sturdy length of cedar branch where he hid, and very slowly and carefully picked it up, waiting even longer before making the decision to peer over the rock to see if there was any sign of his assailant. “Perhaps,” he thought with a brazen optimism, “I did lose him in the woods, and the way ahead is safe for the moment. If it is, surely it would be foolish to continue to wait here, while the others catch up to me..” He nervously placed a palm on the boulder and slowly eased himself up.

    Just before he could raise himself higher to take a look however, several nesting grouse were disturbed at the edge of the clearing only several yards from where he hid and the sound of quiet cursing could be heard. The archer had indeed trailed him, and was now standing directly on the other side of the huge boulder, searching the clearing for signs of Skara’s entry into the open. His mind raced as he considered his situation; within seconds, the other man would find his tracks and notch his bow, leaving him without any defence whatsoever. The hunter might of course be armed with a long blade, which he could also at that moment be wielding and prepared to use as soon as he dove out from his sanctuary to meet him.

    “In either case,” he thought to himself, his mind already made up, “my only chance is to strike now, and continue running for the hills. Lingering here can only be a death sentence.” And so after saying a quiet prayer to Anu, he began to square himself up, gripped the heavy branch tightly in his massive hands and tensed his muscles for what would be his one and only chance of escape.

    Like a coiled spring, Skara leapt over the boulder he had hid behind and swung the large branch with all his strength at the unsuspecting hunter, who himself was only seconds away from peering over the top of it. The blow was true and caught the other man completely by surprise, striking him square on the right side of his head and sending him crashing into a pile of rocks and branches. Skara was shaking as he composed himself, but could not take any chances in risking that the hunter might continue his pursuit or alert the others and so struck the man several more times with the branch to ensure that if he did survive, it would be more than just a few minutes before he awoke. Skara puffed heavily and threw the branch into the woods, pausing only momentarily to catch his breath before searching the hunter for weapons.

    As he struck the pile of rocks, the hunter had landed on his bow, snapping it clean in half. “Damn it to hell,” Skara swore under his breath. In addition to being able to accurately fell game from a half-mile away with a spear, he was a more than capable archer and the bow would have come in handy in warning off the rest of his pursuers.

    He pulled several barbed arrows and a medium-sized ivory blade from the hunter’s tunic, and making sure that there were no other items which might assist him, left the body where it lay. He draped several leafy branches to cover it and made his way across the clearing and into the gentle hills beyond. “That was too close,” he thought to himself as he entered the safety of the forest once more. “If one of them managed to sneak up on me like that, surely there can’t be others too far away, perhaps already in the woods. I’ll need to move more quickly, and take better care not to leave an obvious trail.” He tore several strips of cloth from his tunic before pressing on, and tied these around his feet in an effort to protect the worst of his injuries. It was mid-afternoon now, and he knew that he needed to find some sort of shelter wherein he might light a small fire once the Sun had gone down. He scoured his surroundings as he ran on, peering through the dense forest for any signs in the landscape that he might have recognised.

    “I remember that there were kin from the valley that settled in the hills west of Nevalı Çori, many years ago. I wonder if they are still near, and whether I might find refuge with them.” Skara was remembering his father’s brother, Omer who had left the green valley following his father’s death to chance his fortune and the livelihood of his wife and three sons in the wilderness, alone. He had not seen his uncle in many years, as they had seldom had cause to return to the village and had taken issue with the growing influence of the capital on the day-to-day affairs of its people. This, Skara felt could work in his favour given his current situation, if of course they were still local to the area and if they even wanted any part in the mess that he had gotten himself into. He pressed on deeper into the forest, finding the landscape to gradually steepen as he progressed further into the undulating hills southwest of his home.

    After another couple of hours navigating the woods, he came to a single barren peak that jutted out of the surrounding forest and which might serve well to provide him a clear and uninterrupted view of his surrounds. Careful to listen for any sounds of movement through the undergrowth before he did, he ascended the stony crag and carefully looked about him to find his position. The forest canopy below stretched as far north and south as he could see, and the clearing to the west that he had crossed earlier was now only a lighter patch of green in the very far distance. Looking out east, he noticed that the undulating hills preceding the valley rose only steeper, but he could just make out the definite shape of the final summit ridge on the horizon, after which he could begin his descent into the valley. Curiously, in the quickly fading light he also noticed a faint plume of smoke rising from a fire that had been lit at the southern end of the ridge. The smoke was too far away for him to see whether people or any sort of shelter surrounded it, but he decided that if he hurried on his way, he just might be able to make it to the source before darkness completely closed in.

    He climbed down from the rocky crag and prayed quickly for speed and safety, before setting off east once more. He had not heard the sounds of his pursuers since leaving the clearing, and allowed himself to relax a little and focus more of his attention on safely navigating the steeper terrain rather than just blindly covering it. As he reached a higher elevation, the trees became larger and the undergrowth wilder and more invasive. He used the blade that he had taken from the archer at the clearing to machete his way forward, cutting away at branches that appeared to have stitched themselves together. After another couple of hours of this, he stopped momentarily to rest within the shelter of a large juniper tree, crouching inside a wide hollow in its trunk. He had not rested for more than five minutes before he again picked up on the faint sound of voices somewhere in the lower forest behind him. He immediately sprang-to from his hiding place, and set off once more in the direction of true east. “If I can’t make it to that settlement,” he thought to himself, remembering the plume of smoke atop the valley ridge, “then I’m well and truly done for.”

    The last hour of twilight turned out to be a game of cat and mouse, with Skara desperately trying to ascend to the far ridge and the voices and calls in the woods behind him growing stronger and louder as he went. Just as the last rays of evening light sank beneath the horizon, the forest suddenly became deathly quiet and Skara stopped and held his breath to listen for his pursuers. To his horror, the familiar whistle of an arrow flying by broke the silence, and several voices – four or five if he heard correctly, called out for him to stop where he was immediately and surrender. He ignored their warnings, as he didn’t doubt for one second that He-Tauhasa had demanded he be brought back to the city dead or alive (and in however many pieces they deemed practical), and bounded up the side of the ridge which steepened drastically as he neared the summit.

    “Almost there,” he thought to himself, as several more arrows whistled past him and lodged themselves into the trunks of trees behind. He gritted his teeth and for the last few hundred yards, broke into a wild sprint, climbing to the top of the valley ridge as if he were part animal. Once over the summit, he continued his marathon in the direction of the plume of smoke that had caught his eye earlier and as he neared the clearing and headed for the source of the fire, the thick trees of the forest thinned out and he broke into a brisk walk, in an attempt to finally catch his breath. For a brief and fleeting moment, it seemed as though he had finally broken away.

    He was no more than twenty or thirty yards from breaking through the wall of the forest when he heard a loud cracking sound in the darkness behind him, and the unmistakeable stretching sound of a bowstring being loaded. “Stop right where you are, thief,” called a voice from somewhere in the shadows. The voice seemed a little unsure of itself and sounded like it belonged to a younger man, but Skara dared not turn around, stopping immediately and stretching his arms wide in a gesture of submission. Already the dark shadows of the woods around him were ever so wanly illuminated by the roaring fire in the settlement ahead, the light from which broke through the trees in front of him. As he stood motionless and before he could speak, another voice called out to him, “Drop your weapon, and get on your knees. You’re surrounded and outnumbered – don’t try to do anything foolish.” It was another young man, and again Skara obeyed, dropping his long knife quickly onto the ground beside him and half turning his head to respond.

    By this time, Skara was almost beyond caring. He was completely exhausted, spiritually drained and had finally come to terms with the fact that the fight, for him, was well and truly over. “What has your king Ihreikas promised you for my capture..?” he called back hoarsely, “I truly hope it is enough for the work I’ve put you through.” He gasped as he struggled to fill his lungs, continuing, “If you’re going to kill me, then hurry up and kill me. I could use the rest.” He then dropped to his knees, and coughed violently as he finally regained composure and his powerful heartbeat began to slow. Strangely, the voices from the dark said nothing more to Skara for several moments. Instead, he heard low whispers from the two as they bickered among themselves, one of them sounding quite exasperated as they argued.

    He could not quite make out what they were saying, but before he had a chance to ask who they were, the second voice again called out to him: “Are you.. of the valley..?” Skara was immediately confused, as the young man continued, “What is your name, stranger..? If you’re not a raider, then who are you, and what are you doing wandering so close to our home..?” Skara thanked the Gods..! He realised straight away that he hadn’t been captured by those huntsmen set out to return him to the city. These must have been men from the settlement up ahead and so he relaxed ever so slightly, but chose his next words extremely carefully:

    “I am only an honest hunter from the valley, like yourselves. I have come from the capital to escape punishment for defying the king where I felt his Seers had failed him. My name is Skara Tau, and if you would help me return to the valley which is my home, I would tell no-one that you did.” He stiffened slightly, and felt it necessary to provide a little more information to the two, for all their sakes, “I have been pursued from the lowlands west of here for a day now, and those who would seek to take me back to the capital cannot be very far behind. I beg you, please help me find safe passage home, and keep me from their slings and arrows.” He was placing a high amount of faith in his own dealings with the more isolated families that lived in the hills around and beyond his village, knowing that while most of them had either feared or despised the leadership of Ihreikas whose rule they saw as an interference in their affairs, there might too be those more loyal to the house of the king that might very well fire arrows into his back regardless for such talk.

    He did not have to wait too long to find out, however, as no sooner had he finished speaking he was knocked clear off his feet and onto the ground by one of the young men in the dark, the other laughing as he yelled, “Skara, our cousin from the valley..! Is it really you..?” He was shocked and confused for several seconds, before the words sunk in and he realised who it was that had captured him. “Skara..!” the other voice called out, “What in all the Gods names are you doing here..? We thought you were a raider..!” the other adding, “And what’s this talk of punishment now, and of that pompous upstart, the king..? Come, follow us into our home and the light and lets get a look at you..!” Somehow, Skara had managed to bump into two of his three cousins, the children of his father’s brother and had nearly stumbled right on into their encampment atop the valley ridge. The three of them moved out of the darkness of the forest without and after their eyes adjusted to the light of a roaring fire in the clearing, he laughed and clasped the two of them tightly. It was the first time in days that he had felt anything near to genuine happiness.

    The two young men that had confronted him were the eldest of his uncle’s children, Asher being the oldest and Zemer the middle child. They were in their late teenage years now, and had already had many years of experience hunting with their father, Omer. Skara soon learnt that Madala, their Mother had passed-on shortly after the family had left the village, leaving the four men to look after themselves and the family home. Yemah, the youngest of the three brothers was only just at an age where he was allowed to join them as they hunted the forests around their small wooden house, however was still not yet able to accompany his brothers as they hunted by night. Skara and his two cousins moved around the fire and into the wooden house to greet Omer, and talk more of the road that Skara had taken and what threat might yet still find them at the house if they did not take precautions.

    The three of them entered the house, and Zemer immediately called out to his father, announcing, “Father, we have returned, and you will never guess what we have found in the woods..!” There was a small fire pit in the far end of the larger, central room of the dwelling, which itself was a rough but solid collection of large wooden logs, piled up and interlocked at every corner so as to keep the chill winter air of the upper ridge at bay. Animal skins were piled throughout the floor of the house and secured to cover any gaps in the walls and ceiling, which itself was a thick layer of stretched auroch hide. Skara was more than thankful to be out of the cold, and nearly wept with happiness when offered a cut of wild rabbit that was roasting over the inner hearth. After a minute, Omer could be heard moving around from within the smaller rear room of the dwelling, cursing as his foot struck something hard and heavy in the darkness. He emerged from the back room, immediately regarding Skara with a mixed look of faint recognition and mistrust.

    Skara’s only memories of Omer were always linked to those of his own father, as the two twin brothers were almost inseparable while he was growing up and they both still lived in the valley. Agar, his father and his brother were not unlike Skara and his own half-brother Andar in a way, both sets of brothers somewhat of a living legend among the people of Nevalı Çori. Both of them were also extremely tall and brutishly strong, and had always tried to outdo each other when it came to any physical labour or challenges that might have been issued by their friends, family and each other. Whenever a task such as reinstating the wheel of a broken cart arose, or the opportunity to demonstrate their strength was given, they both leapt at the chance to prove themselves. It was unfortunately this friendly competition that in the end, worked to break them apart, and which resulted in Agar’s untimely death.

    When Skara was only thirteen years old, he had accompanied both Agar and Omer, among others on a hunting trip in the eastern flats above the valley. The group had been tracking a large heard of bison that had wandered down from the north and were waiting until dusk, when the animals had settled in to sleep before deciding to strike. As the group waited by the fire in the shelter of a sandstone outcrop, out of sight of the herd, their conversation had inevitably turned once more to bravado as the two continued to promise to outdo the other at whatever feat could be suggested. Greater and greater were the boasts of strength that the two claimed to have been able to accomplish until finally another member of the group suggested that they settle their dispute once and for all by climbing to the top of the steep cliff, and lifting and hurling the largest stones over the top that they were able to. Neither of the brothers could resist the challenge, and both Agar and Omer made their way around the rise and to the top of the cliff face, where rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes lay.

    Once settled, the two brothers then took turns at heaving and hurling stones over the edge of the rock face, each one slightly larger than the last and each brother challenging the other to follow until they were lifting and dropping boulders of a mass that even they found excruciating to carry. Eventually, the two would reach a stone that either one or the other would be unable to lift, and this would be when a victor could finally be decided. At last, Omer had reached one final massive boulder, roughly the width of his shoulders and the shape of a human torso. With an almighty heave, he tried with all his might to lift the stone, and while he might have moved it several inches off from the ground and was able to drag it closer towards the edge of the cliff face, he simply could not muster the strength to lift it up and hurl it over. Finally, Agar had been given a chance to either defeat or draw with his brother, and the latter in his mind was never even an option.

    With an almighty heave, Agar was himself unable to lift the stone off from the ground, and he tried and tried again to move it. Agar was only slightly taller than Omer, and his brother rounder in the belly, and Omer roared with laughter as his brother failed to do what he himself could not accomplish either. “It would seem, brother,” he had taunted, “that you and I are an even match after all – with neither of us the better man..!” Agar was incensed at the notion that he had once again been unable to best his brother, and spurred on by his taunts leaned in for one final and desperate attempt at moving the monumental stone.

    He roared into the cold night air, his breath clearly visible and with one last heave finally succeeded in lifting the boulder clear off of the ground. None of the party could believe what they were seeing – he had done it..! Agar’s barrel-like arms were bursting and the veins on his neck jutted out as he looked upon his brother with the greatest satisfaction of his life. Omer’s heart sank, finally realising that he had lost, and could only shake his head. Agar’s triumphant laugh boomed across the rise, and he smiled at his brother one last time before turning to send the stone over the edge of the cliff face.

    It was at that moment that the section of ground upon which he stood gave way, sending both Agar and the boulder crashing down over the edge and to the earth below. It happened so quickly that neither Skara nor any other member of the hunting party at first realised what had happened, standing dumbfounded. At one moment, his father had stood before him, appearing to him to be the strongest man in the world and the next – he was gone.

    Skara would always remember this as being a turning point in his life, which contributed heavily toward the feelings of duty and responsibility that had shaped his commitment to his family, friends and people. His uncle Omer on the other hand never truly recovered, falling immediately into a deep and dark depression for many years from which Skara had not been around to see him recover.

    Clearly, the loss of his brother as well as the many difficult years that followed had taken a heavy toll on the other man. As he moved out of the shadows and into the weak light of the hearth, Skara saw not the strong and proud uncle that he once knew standing before him, but the tired and weary frame of a much older, weathered and beaten man. In truth, the years following the death of his brother had not been kind to Omer. He had always blamed himself for what had happened, and in losing his twin he had also lost a large piece of himself. Omer’s decision to move his family away from the village had been in part to escape the constant reminder of his folly, and although there had always been a competitive element to their relationship, he had loved his brother Agar very dearly.

    Omer hobbled out of the doorway and into the room, and placed a large left hand on Zemer’s shoulder before looking Skara up and down, remarking, “Who are you then, stranger, and what brings you up onto the ridge at this hour and to our home..?” Skara took a moment to allow his uncle to search his face for something in it that he might have recognised, before replying, “Uncle Omer, I am Skara, your brother’s son. I have travelled far from the capital, and I would greet you this night and ask for your help in finding safe passage back to the valley. I have come to harm on my journey, and there are hunters all through the woods without that would see me dead, or else returned to He-Tauhasa for accusations of heresy. I plead with you to help me in my journey.” Skara bowed his head, and waited for the other man to respond. Omer mused for a moment, narrowing his eyes and looking the valley man up and down as if trying to ascertain if he really was who he claimed to be.

    After a long pause, he grunted softly before moving closer toward Skara and, placing a strong right hand on his shoulder, searched deep into the other man’s eyes. “So, Skara.. it has been many, many years since last we met. What in Anu’s name have you done, to have your so-called king send out his hunters to find you..?” He seemed to be distracted by the appearance of the other man, Skara had guessed it was because he had in many ways grown to resemble his father, and was possessed of the same strong features; long, flowing dark hair and piercing blue eyes. From a distance, he could have easily been mistaken for him, although Skara was slightly shorter and did not quite possess his father’s monstrous build. Skara replied, “It has indeed been a long time, uncle. I had heard word that you had taken your sons west of the valley, and hoped that I might find you still close by.”

    He then went on to recount the events of the past few days to Omer, his sons watching on and hanging by every word as he told them of the council of Watchers and their ill-omen, of He-Tauhasa and the Seers and of his flight from the capital. When recalling Murmesh and his experiences in the great arena, Asher and Zemer were left wide-eyed and incredulous, and their younger sibling Yemah must also have been listening from the other room, as he quickly rose to join them in front of the hearth to hear the remainder of Skara’s retelling. Throughout this recollection Omer mused, cleared his throat and sighing several times and tut-tutting when Skara spoke of Ihreikas and his response to Skara’s telling of the Watchers’ interpretation. He spoke quickly and eloquently, and made it very clear to Omer that it was only a matter of time before those same hunters that had followed him from Çatalhöyük realised that he had not lingered to hide in the forests at the foot of the ridge and would arrive at his home to inquire as to his whereabouts. Once he had finished speaking, he looked to Omer with concern and waited for his uncle to process everything that he had been told.

    Omer thought for a long while, carefully contemplating everything that Skara had said as he stared into the vibrant embers of the hearth. His mind raced with concern for the events that the Watchers had predicted, and with the fear of what fate might befall his sons if he did not help Skara leave the ridge and return to Nevalı Çori before the king’s hunters caught up to him. Before he could speak, Skara looked across and asked of him, “Will you help me, Uncle..? I have never needed the help of any man more in my life than at this moment. If I leave you now and continue on my way alone I fear that I will not make it back in time, if at all.” Omer paused before looking up at Skara, and responded, “I will help you.” He gestured toward his sons, “We will help you, and not just because I have no great love for Ihreikas and his order of grey ghosts. You are my brother’s son, and through his passing I am indebted to protect you,” he frowned then, “as much as I had failed to do him.”

    The four of them sat solemn then for a time, before Omer rose, addressing his three sons, “Asher, Zemer – collect your spears and slings, and make sure you take all the stones you can carry. Find your sharpest blades and give one small knife to Yemah. Gather your heaviest cloaks and prepare yourselves, we are leaving for the valley and then to follow your cousin north, by way of the Eastern pass.” He turned to Skara, adding, “My boys have set traps all along the widest way through the hills and down into the valley in the hopes of bringing down larger game. It might not give us the best cover, but it will work in our favour to navigate what they have set, and hopefully slow a few of the king’s hunters down along the way.” Skara smiled a nervous smile, but was extremely grateful to his uncle for making the decision to follow him. Though their aid in reaching the valley was vital, it would have only been bittersweet if they did not join him at Uru-Mah, once Sura and his own children had been brought to join them.

    In a flurry of activity, the four of them collected weaponry and provisions for their journey, and after extinguishing the fires of the settlement both inside and out, settled quietly in the dark for the remainder of the night, waiting patiently for first light before they started out. Skara himself meant to rest only for a moment, falling immediately into a deep and well needed sleep however as soon as he closed his eyes.

    A Seven Letter Word for Divine Intervention..

    ‘DEGREE OF SEPARATION’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

    “A seven letter word for divine intervention,” Kylie mused aloud over the daily crossword in the Thursday edition of Porter County’s Post-Tribune. She had stopped in to a cafe during her lunch break to meet up with an old friend who had just moved back home to Indiana after having spent almost four years working her way around Europe – a dream she’d had since they both skipped classes together in high school. Carmen was late. Kylie had already been waiting ten minutes and was beginning to assess the time it would take to walk back to her office, but this was not entirely unusual behaviour for her friend who had always operated on a slightly different plane of existence than those around her. Carmen was something like the Porter County police; rarely around for the little things but always there when you really needed them.

    “Tequila!” sang a familiar voice from behind her, causing Kylie to spit a mouthful of hot macchiato out all over the newspaper. She spun around quickly in her chair and was greeted by the smiling face of Carmen who had been reading over her shoulder for almost a minute. Kylie got up out of her chair and squealed in delight, the two embracing in a scene that raised several eyebrows amongst the other diners before they sat down to order. “I can’t believe it’s really you..!” Kylie started, “It’s been such a long time – how was your trip, and when did you get in..? Where are you staying..?” She suddenly had so many questions that her friend’s Facebook updates just hadn’t covered, and found herself gushing almost like a school girl once again. The joy at seeing such a familiar face had almost made her forget entirely about her own problems that she had been mulling over before she arrived.

    “The trip was fabulous!” Carmen replied, “Absolutely everything about it, from the hostels and bars to the nightlife, the places and people and the men – don’t even get me started!” She gave a knowing wink. Having been the sensible one of their group in college, Kylie had always lived somewhat vicariously through her friend who was, let’s just say something of a free spirit in her younger years. It seemed as though little had changed either, as she launched into the first of many sordid stories detailing boozed up nights in back-alley bars, a stint hitchhiking across Spain and a week-long cruise in the Mediterranean. Kylie had jumped straight into a degree after graduation before her marriage to husband Dominic last year, and couldn’t help but feel as though she had missed out a little on what it might have been like to take a breather before getting her ducks in a row. Eventually Carmen ran out of steam, asking, “Enough about me though, surely you’re tired of hearing about my childish antics. Tell me about you and that gorgeous husband of yours, I can’t believe I wasn’t here for the wedding..!”

    Kylie smiled awkwardly, “Dominic and I are doing well. The proposal was a big surprise, we’d traveled to Chicago for a weekend to see his parents, and one night he took me up to the roof of our condo where a table, wine and wait staff were already waiting for us. I was a complete mess when he got down on one knee. The view, the night air – it was just surreal. He’s been amazing, and we’ve got our little place in Portage, well I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures.” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, which Carmen immediately picked up on, “What is it, honey..? Is everything alright..?” She took Kylie’s hand and leaned in with a look of concern. Kylie hesitated, and then continued:

    “Well, until about a month or so ago everything was fine. Just amazing, really. I’d just started on at Findlays and he was on the road less often, we finally had more time than ever to spend together. Lately though,” she paused to best articulate herself, “He’s been a little distant and working a lot of long hours, he says to meet with clients and the like. Despite having him around more, it somehow seems as though we’re spending less and less time together, just the two of us.” She sighed and collected herself, “But enough about that, you didn’t come here to hear about my paranoia. I’m sure I’m just blowing things out of proportion, which I’ve never done before, right..?” She laughed and Carmen smiled, replying; “Well I’m sure it’s just nothing, but you have always been good at reading people. Sometimes maybe a little too good – remember Jordy..?” Kylie laughed, “Well, in my defence he WAS a shady character. How was I to know he had a sister..?” The two spent the rest of the hour catching up, Kylie filling her in on the exciting world of business accountancy and Carmen telling her all about her little sister Nadine and the new mystery man she’d been seeing. “Chin up, honey,” she said as they eventually called for the cheque and left the cafe, “It’s like we used to say – some days you’re the pigeon, other days the statue. But if anyone can smell a rat, it’s Kylie Tavares. Kylie Tavares.. that just sounds weird to say..!”

    They parted ways, promising to get together that weekend for a decent drink and to hear more about each other’s busy lives and plans for the future. Despite the momentary respite, Kylie couldn’t help but feel rattled at having finally voiced her concerns out in the open. Dominic had been her only real long term relationship, and they had married relatively quickly despite her usual caution in getting close to people. She spent the remainder of the afternoon with her head in the company books, trying hard to keep her mind off of anything other than her work.

    Across town, Carmen’s sister Nadine was working absent-mindedly at another bar and cafe where she trained as a barista most afternoons. She was only nineteen, and had decided to take a leaf out of her big sister’s book, working straight out of school to save for a long trip abroad before then deciding on which college to apply for. It seemed like the sensible choice, and given her own active social life she felt quite a way off from being ready to knuckle down and focus on building a career. Slinging drinks and coffee was easy, and the hours suited her perfectly. Today, even more than usual her thoughts were miles away from the task at hand. She had been seeing an older man, Sebastian, for several months and unlike any other boyfriends she’d had in high school, this just felt different. He was mature, grounded.. he made her feel safe and seemed genuinely happy to see her, as often as his schedule allowed. Sebastian worked often, but every time he was able to get away and the two of them could head out for dinner or drinks in the city, he would shower her with affection. They couldn’t get enough of each other, and it made her feel special.

    He had texted her that morning to say that he would have the evening free to share a meal and a couple of drinks, and the smile she couldn’t shake had become contagious among her co-workers. “So, Nadine,” Lauren, another barista teased, “I’m guessing by the stupid look on your face you’ll be seeing your mystery man again tonight..? What will it be this time – dinner at the Mayfair, or maybe cocktails and a private show on his yacht..?” She laughed, and Nadine responded by flicking water playfully at her. “For your information, smart ass, we’re meeting at the Mexican place on fifth. Just dinner, and anything else is for me to know and you to only dream about.” She cocked her head toward the counter, “Make yourself useful for once and fill up the machine.” She was used to this, as she had been unable from the outset to keep her new relationship to herself. Things were going well, and she saw no reason to be worried that it wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, she was quietly hoping that that night he would ask her in to spend the night, and had come to work made up and wearing her best, prepared for whatever might happen.

    Soon enough, the doors closed and everything had been cleaned, stacked and swept away from the day’s trade. Nadine quickly changed out of her apron in the back office, put on a fresh coat of lipstick and allowed the two other girls working her shift to attend to her hair and give their opinion on how she looked. Lauren finished preening and took a step back to size her up, “You’ll owe us one for tonight,” she boasted, “If he passes up a knockout like you, you’ll have much bigger things to worry about than whether he’s into you. Get out there and do us proud.” She winked, and slapped Nadine on the behind as they giggled and went to turn out the lights before going their separate ways. Nadine turned the corner and made her way to the restaurant that she had settled on, lighting up a cigarette while she waited outside. It was 7pm exactly, which his text had specified and it was unusual that he hadn’t arrived yet. She tried her best to act casual as she glanced left and right, and then stared ahead indifferently so as not to appear nervous or desperate. She hadn’t been worried that he would stand her up, as he’d always been waiting for her whenever they’d met up before but as a soft, cool breeze picked up and she began to shiver, her mind started to wander.

    All of a sudden, she felt a tap on her right shoulder and a gentle voice in her ear which said, “Excuse me, young lady – I’m looking for a pretty woman I’m meant to be meeting here. Have you seen any walk by..?” She turned without hesitating and threw both arms around him, saying, “Don’t ever sneak up on a girl like that..! I might have slapped you on instinct.” “What, with these..?” he replied, holding up her tiny hands in front of his face, “Why, these couldn’t hurt a fly!” She scrunched up her nose and punched Sebastian playfully in the stomach, to which he almost doubled over laughing. “Come on, gorgeous. Let’s get in out of the cold. How was your day – did you miss me..?” The two walked hand in hand into the building, and Nadine was almost skipping out of happiness to once again be walking alongside her handsome stranger.

    Sebastian led her past the counter and into the annex in the far corner of the restaurant, which confused Nadine, prompting her to ask, “Where are we going, I thought we were stopping here to eat..?” “Oh, plans have changed,” he replied, “Didn’t you get the memo..?” She scowled, “Ha-ha, smarty pants. Where are you taking me then..? There’s nothing else in this building, I’m sure of it.” “That’s why we’re not staying in the building,” he responded cryptically as he pressed the button for the elevator and they went inside. “Now, I’m taking you up to somewhere special, a place only I know about. But I can’t let you see where so you’re going to have to trust me here,” She was confused and excited, but eager to know what it was he had in store. He pulled her close, and rested her chin on his shoulder. She suddenly felt so warm all over as she wrapped herself in the folds of his coat, and the smell of his cologne caused her to fight her impulse to pull away and ask a million questions. She instead held him tight and closed her eyes as the elevator whirred and travelled skyward, and couldn’t recall a time she’d ever felt so safe.

    After what seemed like hours, the elevator dinged and the doors opened with a rush of cool air which indicated that they were no longer inside the building. He looked down into her big blue eyes, and said, “Okay, you can turn around now.” Nadine detached herself and spun around to see that they were now on the roof of the tower, which must have stood some forty floors high. They stepped out from the doorway and as they did, she stopped and raised both hands to her mouth. Across the rooftop, Sebastian had arranged for a dining table and two chairs to be set up adjacent to the far ledge, and even from where she was she could make out a bottle of champagne chilling in a bucket of ice and a full crockery spread set out beneath two tall gas heaters that had been fired up to chase away the chill night air. She squeaked in delight and clasped his hand tightly and he smiled, leading her across the roof before pulling out her chair and beckoning her to sit. “After you,” he said with a bow, and they both sat down to take it all in.

    “This is AMAZING,” She said, after taking a minute to make sure she could stay composed, “How did they let you do this..? Is this even allowed..?” “I have friends in building management here,” he replied with a grin, “and in a few of the other buildings in the area. I know you were keen to grab a bite downstairs, so I thought I’d make our date a little more exclusive. One of the staff will be up in a minute to take our order, which they’ll bring straight up. How do you like the view..?” he asked, looking out over the cityscape below them. She turned herself to admire the lights and windows illuminated in the other office towers in the city center, and replied, “It’s breathtaking. This is so nice – you’re so nice. Thank you.” She smiled and took his hand across the table, and they continued talking long after their meal, well into the evening. Despite her expectations, and after sharing a long and passionate kiss when they were done, Sebastian dropped her outside of her home in the suburbs just before midnight, promising that they “would have a lot more time to spend together over the weekend, as I’m completely free then.” Nadine quietly crept into her parent’s house and once he had driven away, sat down with her back against the front door with an unshakeable smile and let out a long, wistful sigh.

    The next morning, Kylie rose early to shower and get ready for another day at the office. Dominic was still sleeping soundly at 8am when she left the house. He had been forced once again to work late at the firm in order to connect with a representative from a big Japanese conglomerate that his corporate legal team had been working tirelessly to satisfy as far as reaching a resolution in an ongoing labour dispute, or so he said. She wasn’t an idiot however, and despite marinating in cologne she could still smell the faint traces of cheap perfume on a ruffled shirt he’d stuffed deep into the washing machine. Her heart had sunk as she ran a cycle before leaving, but as usual she stopped to take several deep breaths, closed her eyes and pushed the situation out of her mind before getting in her car and taking to the freeway. “Keep going,” she thought to herself as she battled the peak hour traffic leading into town, “The world doesn’t stop turning just for this.”

    The day dragged on, and in spite of the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach she immersed herself in her day to day tasks. It was easy to embrace the monotony of accountancy compared to the complex and uncontrollable speculation of the state of her marriage, and although she knew the situation would still be waiting for her when the day was through, it was all she could do to keep from standing up and screaming at the top of her voice at nothing and everything. “How could he do this to me..?” she thought to herself, over and over. “I’ve given back one hundred percent. Every stress and hurdle, every opportunity to try my best to make him happy, to show him just how much I care I’ve been there. Everything we’ve talked and dreamed about, and all of the promises he’s made. Why would he do this..? What did I fail to do to make him look elsewhere..?”

    It felt like the longest day of her life when the hands on the office clock finally found their way around to 5pm, but despite the working day having drawn to a close, Kylie still dreaded walking out the door and returning home. When she eventually did, she was approached nervously by her supervisor who asked if she might be interested in working a few hours the next day, Saturday. “I know it’s the weekend, but if we can finalise month’s end before Monday, we’ll all be able to breathe easier come next week.” Without hesitating and to his surprise, she accepted the offer almost immediately. “Any chance to take my mind off Dominic,” she conceded, texting him briefly and drily as a courtesy to let him know.

    Across town, Carmen’s sister Nadine had taken the Friday off from work to spend researching options for her eventual trip overseas. She had been torn between following her sister’s recommendation to travel around Europe and spending a couple of months in South America, backpacking across the continent. She had decided finally on the latter, feeling that she would find more value on the road less travelled, and was excitedly bookmarking pages and hostels online for most of the afternoon. Eventually as it approached the evening, she closed her laptop and reached excitedly for her phone that buzzed loudly on the dresser beside her bed. It was Sebastian, and her heart skipped a beat as she opened his text to see that he was again free for the evening, and wanted to catch up for a quick drink in a short window that had opened up in his schedule. She leapt up and jumped in the shower, throwing on her favourite jeans and what was a seriously inadequate tank top for the time of year, and raced out the door to catch the next bus into town.

    Sebastian and Nadine met up at a wine bar in the heart of the city, just a few blocks east of where he claimed to work. He had been reluctant to talk too often or at length about what it was he did for a living, only saying that he was a practising lawyer for a medium sized firm, and that while he enjoyed what he did (and was more than adequately compensated for doing), he wished that the hours were a little less intense. She didn’t mind that he wasn’t open to talking more about his personal life, and was happy enough at being able to rub it in the faces of her equally young friends and co-workers that she was “dating a lawyer, an older man who has his act together.” Nor did she mind that he was able to cover the bill for most of their nights out together. While she was happy with the pace and flexibility of her job at the cafe, the pay didn’t leave much wiggle room after the essentials (hair appointments, clothes and makeup etc.) for much of anything else. Sebastian also seemed greatly satisfied at being able to take care of her in this way, and so the relationship seemed like a win-win, as far as she was concerned.

    The two enjoyed a few quick drinks at the bar and then Sebastian suggested they take a drive out to the lake to sit and share a bite to eat before he dropped her off. As they sat together on a bench by the foreshore, his arm wrapped around her he turned and said, “As much as I’d love to just stay here with you all night, I’ll have to head back into the office to take an important conference call with a client in Asia tonight.. I hope you understand. Given the time difference, unfortunately we don’t have many options if we’re to talk face-to-face, is that alright..?” “Of course,” she beamed, although she was beginning to wonder if she would ever get him alone to spend a full evening (and morning) together, but he quickly followed-up, “I’ll have tomorrow free, though – all of it. I know it might be a little soon, but I wonder if you might want to come around to my place in the morning..? I was hoping we could spend the day together, just you and me.” Heart pounding, she replied through a smile, “Yes! I’m not working until late in the afternoon, I could come by early, definitely – yes.” He smiled back, and they sat and watched the waves lap gently at the sand below, and the moonlight reflect softly off the surface of the lake.

    The next morning, Kylie was operating on auto-pilot as she quietly rose from beside her sleeping husband once again, crept out of the bedroom and went through the motions of her daily routine. She couldn’t stomach the thought of breakfast, and didn’t bother with any chores – washing the dishes that sat in the sink from yet another meal Dominic had missed or running laundry, and stopped in to wake him momentarily and let him know that she was leaving. “I’m heading in to the office for a few hours, can you take care of the washing and what’s in the sink while I’m gone..?” she asked softly as he groaned and rolled over.

    “I’m not sure I’ll have time,” he mumbled. “What do you mean you won’t have time..?” She asked, “What are you doing today..?” “No plans whatsoever,” came his reply. “The guys are finalising the project from Chicago, I’m taking a personal day. Can I get back to sleep..?” he muttered rudely. “Yeah, right. Whatever you need, honey.” she replied sarcastically, frustrated and suspicious that he’d waste an entire Saturday lying in bed. Despite recent events, she still believed she knew him better than to buy into the idea that Dominic would ever waste an entire day lazing around the house. She slung her handbag over one shoulder with a sigh, locked the front door and started out to the car.

    For some reason, perhaps a lapse in thought or for the gnawing doubt in the back of her mind, she started the engine and backed out into the street where she drove only thirty or forty meters down the road and parked on the far side of it, letting the engine idle. All of a sudden, she found her breathing to grow short and quick, and that her heart was beating at a million miles an hour, like it could burst out of her chest. “What am I doing..?” She said quietly to herself, as she merely sat and gazed intently into the rear vision mirror at their house behind her. “This is crazy, Kylie. Just take it out of park and get moving.” She couldn’t though, despite knowing that she would soon be late for work. First for five minutes, and then ten she stayed perfectly still, the engine running and her not taking her eyes off the front of their house in the distance for even a moment. Eventually fifteen minutes went by, and then twenty. “You’re a fool,” she said aloud, reaching for the handbrake as she prepared to move, but still keeping her sight fixed firmly on the house.

    It was just as she was about to take off that she saw her round the corner.

    Kylie’s heart sank as a young, blonde and flighty looking woman approached the front door to the house, HER house that she and her husband shared and knocked on the door. From the distance where she was she could only make out that she was a small girl, who couldn’t be much older than twenty to twenty-five years old, dressed in tight jeans and an immodest and colourful singlet, the sort of thing no-one her age would dare to be seen wearing out in public anymore. After the unknown woman had waited on the porch for about a minute, Kylie saw the door open and Dominic move out from within the house to greet her.

    Without looking around he stepped out and embraced the woman, planting a long and passionate kiss on her lips, the sort of kiss that he and Kylie shared so long ago and that she had longed for in recent months, before they both went inside and the door clicked shut. She could not believe what had happened, despite knowing without a doubt. In shock and without thinking, Kylie turned her eyes to the road, took the car out of park and slowly merged into traffic, bound for Findlays. Not a single thought or emotion entered her mind for the entire commute.

    She was still stony-faced as she navigated her way through the open plan office and found her station, and immediately she immersed herself once more in her work. Before she knew it, she looked up at the clock on the wall and realised that it was already well past noon, and so took herself out of the bullpen and to the break room where she reheated leftovers from another meal that Dominic had missed and just sat there expressionless, barely touching it. After several minutes Bradley Johnson, the company’s weekend accountant wandered in and sat down to join her, immediately and frustratingly making small talk. He was one of those painful co-workers that somehow just couldn’t function in silence no matter what the circumstances, which on any other day irked Kylie to no end. Today, however, it was the absolute last thing she felt prepared to deal with.

    “So Kyles,” he started cheerfully, “How’s that hubby of yours..? I’ll bet you guys are well and truly settled into the new place by now..?” She didn’t respond, only propping her head up in her right hand and staring absently into the reheated risotto she was toying at with a fork. Bradley coughed awkwardly but somehow missing the signal, tried again, “It was real nice meeting Dom at the get-together last month, real nice. He seems like a stand-up guy that husband of yours. I’ll bet you feel like a real lucky woman there, hey..?” Finally and all of a sudden, maybe at the sight of the leftover effort or the mention of Dominic, or a combination of the two she found herself only seconds away from bursting into tears.

    She quickly rose and kicked out the chair behind her, managing only to mutter, “Sorry, excuse me,” as Bradley looked on in surprise and ran to the bathroom, where she rushed into a stall, locked the door and began sobbing loudly and uncontrollably. She clasped a hand to her mouth to stifle the sound as tears streamed down her face and her mascara ran, and wept openly for what seemed like forever. It felt like she was wrestling against tides of despair, as wave after wave of grief overcame her. Betrayal, inadequacy and worthlessness, fear, anger and nausea. How could she be so stupid..? How could he do this to her..? It was all just too much, and she knew she had to get out of there immediately.

    Bleary-eyed, she fumbled for her phone and scrolled through her contact list for a name.

    Carmen.

    For some reason, she knew that there was nobody else that she could talk to at that moment, nobody else that would know what to say. She was a wreck, and she couldn’t be alone. She finally found the number and dialled, and as soon as Carmen heard her voice on the other end of the line she immediately knew what was happening. “Darling, Kylie, what’s the matter – where are you..? Oh Kylie.. stay where you are, I’m coming to get you. Get your things, I’ll meet you out the front in ten. I’m so sorry, don’t go anywhere.” Kylie hung up the phone and leant her head against the wall of the cubicle, taking long and erratic breaths to try and calm herself down. “Damn him for doing this,” she thought to herself, “Damn him to hell.”

    Several minutes later, Carmen came screaming around the corner, almost collecting a cyclist as she did, and flew into a parking space in front of her friend who was standing in a shadowed corner of an alcove outside Findlays, and motioned her to come over. Kylie dropped down in the passenger seat, and the two talked there for almost an hour, Kylie explaining through sobs what she had seen that morning, and Carmen cursing Dominic with every tone and colour possible, and otherwise just listening intently to what her friend had to say. Eventually, Kylie more or less regained composure, and they reached a point in conversation where neither of them could do more than just sit in the car, staring directly ahead and almost cathartically observing the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that stirred in their minds.

    After a long and unbroken silence, Carmen turned and insisted she take her across town to her favourite coffee shop for something sweet and a spot in the sun to sit and talk some more. “I’m so sorry to drag you into this so soon after you came back,” Kylie sniffed. “Nonsense..!” came Carmen’s reply, “There’s no way I’d be anywhere else right now. My sister will be starting her shift soon,” she added, “I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to hook us up with something special.” “That sounds great,” Kylie replied, and they finally veered out from the parking space to make their way over.

    Nadine had just arrived at work, sporting a grin from ear to ear. She had spent the morning and most of the afternoon at Sebastian’s house, where they had finally for the first time become intimate. She was amazed at how nice his house was, and in such a perfect neighbourhood, too. He was so loving, so tender – so generous. It had been the perfect day, and absolutely nothing could bring her down from where she was. She walked into the break room to prepare for her shift, and immediately her co-workers could tell that something was up. Sarcastically, Lauren called back to her from the counter, “To anyone who just noticed the skinny blonde clocking-on for the afternoon, the one with the dopey grin I apologise – we don’t serve what she’s having!” The others laughed, and so did Nadine as she rummaged through her bag for her spare apron. As she did, her hand came in contact with something unfamiliar. She reached in and pulled out a heavy leather wallet that definitely wasn’t hers. “Sebastian,” she realised, “I must have knocked it off of the dresser and into my bag when we..” She smiled again, and decided she’d text him to let him know.

    Before she could however, she noticed a flood of new messages and missed calls on her phone. She opened the first which read, “Nadine, I’m so sorry but have you seen my wallet..? I can’t find it anywhere. If you have it, please DO NOT open it. I’m coming over to see you now, just hold onto it and put it away for me – S.” She was confused, and not sure why he would be so worked up about it. Curiosity quickly got the better of her, and she decided to go ahead and take a quick look anyway, “How’s he going to know, and what’s he got to hide..?”

    She opened up the wallet and flipped the inner panel, and froze as her eyes fell upon his driver’s licence: Dominic Tavares – Porter County, 38 years old. She put a hand up to her mouth and gasped, immediately closing up the wallet and taking a step back. “Who on Earth, what the hell is going on..?” she asked herself, a sinking feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. “Who IS he..?” Just as her mind really began to race, a voice called out from the front, “Get your sweet little ass out here, Nadine – we need a hand..!”

    She quickly tied her apron and made for the counter, trying to ignore a million questions that flooded her mind. Just as she reached the front of the cafe to get started, her sister Carmen and her friend Kylie walked in, both looking a little worse for wear. She immediately abandoned her own concerns and bounced across to serve them, asking, “Well don’t you two look like a pair. What can I get you..? It’s probably a little early for anything heavy, but you both look like you could use a real drink.” “Thanks, Nadine,” Carmen replied, “It’s been a particularly bad one. I’ll have an Irish Coffee,” she turned to Kylie, who added, “Yes, it has – some days you’re the pigeon, other days the statue, right Carm..?” She turned to signal Nadine for a double shot of tequila.

    A moment later, Dominic burst through the door.

    Here is Another Instalment from Alluvion:

    05. Murmesh the Terrible

    “Most grand and high above us,” He-Xur began, “I return to you as promised, and have brought with me several hundred good men of the valley to join you in your campaign against the West. I submit these lives to you, and to the protection of Çatalhöyük in those darkest of times that lie before us.” Skara chanced to briefly raise his head to catch a glimpse of his king, whom he himself had not seen in many years since his own father had brought him to the city as a child. He was astonished at the sheer scale of the other man, who had grown extremely red and fat in his affluence and was now possessed of a mass that appeared entirely impractical.

    To Skara, he seemed almost to have become a complete caricature of the robust and muscular figure that he remembered meeting in his youth. He-Tauhasa’s thick, dark hair had thinned at the front, his teeth had yellowed (and several were now missing), and he coughed and spluttered almost constantly as though his lungs carried a sickness, even as he sat completely still. To his immediate left and right, almost completely in the shadows beside the throne stood two strange, lithe figures. Both were tall and thin and completely bald, save for a small tuft of plaited hair at the back of their skulls and they were clad mysteriously in thick grey robes without any kind of adornment whatsoever. These he knew straight away to be Seers, chiefest among the King’s advisors and the cause and reason for their journey to the capital.

    Alone and to his far right stood a single solitary soldier, an absolute mountain of a man who was curiously the only king’s representative that Skara had seen within the capital who wore any real sort of armour. The figure was clad in a heavy red leather tunic which extended down almost to his feet, and was wearing a strange polished chest plate upon which was burned the image of a running ram, the emblem of He-Tauhasa. Skara could not make out the features of this man who stood solemn and completely silent throughout his audience with the King, as his entire face was obscured by a similarly dyed red cloth save for a narrow slit from which two cold, dark eyes stared out at him. He decided that this must be the champion of Ihreikas, and perhaps the most distinguished and decorated of his warriors. He-Tauhasa regarded the Lord of the valley with a grunt and a nod, before replying;

    “You honour me, He-Xur as always, and your contribution to the safety of Silur-Mah shall be noted in the chronicles of our time. Now tell me,” he motioned to the captive valley man with a wide sweep of a chubby right hand, “who is this prisoner that you keep, and would bring before me. Who is this huntsman that you have restrained, and what are his crimes which warrant such bondage..?” He-Xur glanced down at Skara with a look of calculation, before responding, “This man is Skara Tau of the village Nevalı Çori whom I have trusted with the affairs of his people in my absence. This man has until my return served to administer the affairs of his kin, and has done so without question. However, upon our return to the village, he has betrayed both your divine order and the wisdom of those that counsel you, refusing to obey your call to serve his realm in its hour of need and blaspheming the Seers. Thus, I have decreed that he is to be treated as an enemy of the Southern lands, and have brought him before your great authority to be punished, as is our law.”

    The other man frowned deeply as if considering his words carefully, grunted again and raised his somewhat grotesque body from the throne, stepping down to stand directly in front of Skara to address him, “So, Skara of the family Tau. Are the words of your lord true..? Do you defy an order that has come directly from the house of the King and therefore from the Gods themselves, and oppose our campaign against those savages from the West..?” Without pausing long enough to allow him to answer, he went on, “I would have never expected such insolence from a man of your line. Your father I knew in fact, before his passing to be a loyal and honourable man commanding of much respect. What would he say to you now, to see you claiming such treason as to oppose the will of the Gods and your king..? Speak now, Skara,” he turned as if also to address the entire throng of minders and delegates present in the room, “tell us that these accusations are in fact not the truth.”

    “My King,” Skara began, locking eyes with the Seer to the right of the throne as he did, “what He-Xur has told you is true. I cannot condone open war upon the West where I have been counselled otherwise. I do not believe that the Seers..” he chose his words carefully, “I do not believe that you have been provided the correct interpretation for those signs that would direct you toward this action, and I must object, much as it might mean my own death.”

    “My death, or worse..” he thought soberly to himself.

    “Very well, Skara of the valley. As you so wish, and so will be our duty, but before passing judgement I would know; of what counsel do you speak..? On whose tongue have you gambled your life and the lives of those you call your kin – speak..!” His voice shifted quickly to a more commanding tone which boomed throughout the wide open space of the hall. Skara raised his head, straightened his shoulders and stared directly into He-Tauhasa’s eyes, “The Watchers of the North, my king. Those of the high hills speak of a far greater calamity, and have interpreted from the signs in the heavens that a great dragon, a beast of seven tails and the power to end all life in the Southern lands would descend from the stars with the fury of a thousand suns to swallow the oceans and destroy your kingdom. They have promised us safety within the walls of their city at Uru-Mah, and would aid us in protecting our people from this disaster. Of this, I am sure and believe all that I have come to know, and this is why I cannot follow you.” He looked then around the room, hoping to have raised at least some curiosity from those present. It was however the Seer to the left of the throne that descended to join his king, and spoke:

    “Skara of the valley,” the voice seemed to slither from between the priest’s lips, which were laced with a thick, black paint that matched the colour around his eyes. Eyes that seemed to dart all too often at the king as he spoke. “What do you know of the will of the Gods..? What evidence,” he snorted, causing an anger to well-up within Skara, “what proof have you brought us to support these wild and, fantastic, stories of which you speak..? Tell us of this dragon will you..? Surely such fairytales have no place in the house of a king whose family have forged the greatest empire in living memory, an empire built entirely on the foundations of reason and divine trust that those of our order have accurately and honourably provided for generations..?” The Seer appeared to be addressing his king, He-Xur and those delegates present from other communities more than Skara himself, and he began to feel angry and nervous in coming to realise the true extent of the influence that the Seers had upon his rulers.

    He replied: “Seer, I would not debate the details of prophesy with you. Of your order I admit to knowing very little, and cannot claim myself to have shared a direct audience with the Gods. However I do trust in the wisdom of the Watchers, and have seen the scale of their knowledge and power first hand.” The Seer interrupted Skara, changing his voice to a more mocking pitch and correcting him, “You have seen nothing of the power of the Watchers, who are no more an educated and divine order than any other motherless, dishonourable exiles from the Northern hills. The residue of those godless heathens are no more children of the great god Anu than their animal forebears. Their words are poison, and their claims can only be self-serving.”

    “My King,” the Seer continued in a more gentle tone, speaking now directly to He-Tauhasa, “was not their order the barbarian bastard breed of a savage tribe, whose only reason for being was to destroy your ancestors and drive them from their lands..? Would not these ‘Watchers’ understandably harbour a deep and burning resentment for the descendants of those that had driven their forefathers from our lands and to their knees, and banished them into the cold wastes of the North..? Surely the notion that any benefit could come from those who I would remind you, if I can, that it is an act itself punishable by death merely to fraternise with is not any more realistic than say.. magic dragons from the skies..?” He laughed at this and looked sarcastically at Skara, raising derision from the crowd which fuelled him to respond;

    “The Watchers have taken me into their city, their sanctuary in the hills and have shown me their faces. I have shared in their food and stores and have been gifted many things that they had no obligation to give, and not once have I felt threatened in their lands. Theirs is as peaceful and enlightened a society as ours in the South, and in some ways..” he raised his wrists and binds to support his argument, “in some ways perhaps even more so. The Watchers have knowledge of a great many things that your order do not, and have freely and wilfully offered to provide assistance to us through the coming darkness, a darkness that comes quicker with each day that passes.”

    “I have seen them, and I have felt no hatred, nor have I seen any cause to doubt the predictions that they have provided me. I have been treated honourably and with respect by the Watchers and I promise you, if you refuse to accept their help there won’t be anything left for anyone to war over.” He turned and gave the Seer that had challenged him a look that could have killed. “What I have told you is the truth, and catastrophe is indeed coming. A great fire from the heavens will arrive, and tear your kingdom asunder.” As he looked around the room once more before continuing, he noticed a trace amount of fear in the eyes of those soldiers and onlookers around him, and also sensed a faint waver from the Seer. He knew that he needed to press on. “Thousands on thousands will die immediately, and Çatalhöyük and everything that you hold dear will burn to the ground. Your empire will exist no more, and when the mountains of ice to the north are vanquished, the oceans will rise and flood over the land, and wash your order and kinsman away before the Sun is stripped of its glory, and for a thousand godless years..”

    “Enough..!” interrupted He-Tauhasa with a booming roar, which shook the ground beneath Skara and drained all colour from his face. “How dare you enter the house of the bloodline of kings and speak to me of those wretched phantoms, the children of men and beasts as if they were absolved of their father’s guilt..? I will hear no more.” He-Tauhasa stiffened and threw both of his arms wide, shaking at the belly as he did so and declared; “Your Lord was right in bringing you before me, but I will hear no more slanderous lies which have come from those exiled beyond our gates. The Southern lands exist today only by the grace of the Gods, my forebear He-Kuirsna and by the blood spilt protecting her from the Ancients, and the words of their pitiful descendants cannot be anything more than the sinister plots and schemes of treason and overthrow.”

    “My council of Seers are the divine voice of the Godhead, and have been since before your father’s time. If theirs is the vision of war from the West, then this is what will come to pass. No more will the poisonous mistruths of those half-bred animals be tolerated in this city, and I declare that any further talk of those lies that you have brought before me today will be met with death..!”

    He pointed at Skara, and staring into his eyes with a burning judgement that flirted with pure hatred, announced, “You will be taken to the great arena at the north of the city, and for your false witness will be given to Murmesh the Terrible when the sun rises on the morrow, as the Gods will. He-Xur..” he gestured to his subordinate, “get this heretic out of my sight..!” A group of citizens that had gathered outside the hall erupted into cheers at the mention of the name, and began chanting it as though it belonged to a great champion, Skara fearing perhaps the monstrous soldier in red. “Murmesh, Murmesh, Murmesh..!” they yelled and screamed in a frenzy. Any hold that Skara’s speech might have had over them at that moment had been immediately broken, and a wave of excitement extended from the great hall throughout the city akin to a bloodlust among predators.

    “Murmesh,” Skara mouthed silently to himself, as he was yanked viciously to his feet, “never have I heard of a warrior called Murmesh.” The name was completely foreign to him, even as he searched his distant memory. The title, however, could only suggest that the odds were not stacked in his favour. Still as white as a sheet, he was paraded once around the room before being led from the throne to the cheers and jeers of those watching on and as he was, caught sight of the Seers flanking their king. Both of those strange robed acolytes were smiling broadly like vultures and exchanging glances of pure and unmitigated joy at their own validation, and the promise of their continued infallibility in the house of their ruler. Skara knew somehow that it would not be the last time that he would see those smiling devils before too long, and vowed quietly that if he were to somehow break free from his sentence, that they would be the first to face retribution. This he vowed, to his Gods and those of the Watchers.

    Skara was led from the hall by He-Xur and several of the city’s soldiers and was taken to a holding cell at its northern edge. As the group snaked their way through the erratic and winding alleys between buildings, he was pelted with rotting fruit and vegetables by children and cursed by the men and women that called the city their home, until his captors broke away from the central district and they neared the outskirts of the metropolis. The road they had taken led them up a steep rise and towards a wide enclosure made out of the earth and walled by thick logs and stones stacked awkwardly to ring a deep, wide depression in the ground that appeared to have been only freshly dug by the people of the city.

    Skara caught a distant glimpse of the inside of the depression as they neared the crest of a hill overlooking it before they reached his prison. He noticed that the earth within the enclosure had been deeply trodden and gouged in many places by something large and extremely heavy. Several citizens of the city were inside the enclosure, apparently reinforcing the walls around it, and he could just make out from where he was that in some places, the dark soil of what he later knew to be the great arena held deep pools of blood and water. He shivered visibly as they veered-off from the hill and made for a series of crude pits, which served to house the enemies of He-Tauhasa awaiting punishment.

    As he was thrown into one such pit near the Northern wall, and before the wooden grate above him was closed and its latch secured, one of his captors leaned-in above him and said; “I would hope and pray that a man of your size can run, my friend. For whatever strength might have served you until this day will do you little good tomorrow.” At that, the grate slammed shut and Skara stared once more into the darkness, wishing he were home. When the footfalls and voices of the soldiers and his lord were out of earshot, his thoughts turned to his son and daughter, and he wept openly beneath the sky and, eventually, the stars above him. Stars which he blamed for everything that had led him to that moment.

    After a long and uncomfortable night spent in a dark and filthy hole, Skara was woken up rather abruptly by a bucket of freezing water that was dumped through the roof of his cell and onto his head. The shock of the cold water on his skin immediately caused his breath to shorten, and his senses instantly to snap to attention. A gruff voice called through the grate above him, “Rise and shine, prisoner. Today is your big day..! The King wants you washed and decent before he makes an example of you,” and at that, a crudely-woven rope ladder was dropped over the edge. Skara climbed up and out of the pit, holding himself and shivering violently in the crisp morning air, and was escorted by the guards to a small hut nearby to be washed and dressed for what was to follow. Two giggling handmaidens were on hand to assist with this, to which Skara did not object however he was careful to bundle his own robes and kept a careful eye on them as he bathed. When he was washed and dressed in a simple tunic that they had provided, he gathered what remained in his clothing and was bound once more at the wrists before being led from the building.

    As the group arrived at the foot of the hill which he had passed over the day before, they were joined by two more guards who were wielding flaming torches and escorted around the rise toward the arena. Skara could already hear the excited buzz of several hundred voices in the distance, and as they neared the walls he realised that he had been deceived as to the true scale of the structure into which he was being led. The walls of the arena towered above him as they approached, and pyres had been lit all at the tops of several scaffolds around its outer rim. He was guided through an entrance at what must have been the rear of it and into a dark tunnel that had been dug out from the mound of earth that ringed the central stage. After a short distance they reached a larger chamber which he guessed would have been northeast of its center, and there Skara was instructed to sit and wait. “He-Xur wanted to speak with you, before we take you further,” one of the guards told him. He groaned audibly as he dropped and sat cross-legged on the flattened dirt floor, his eyes adjusting to the dark and there they waited patiently for his lord to arrive.

    Several long minutes passed, and the noise from within the arena had grown so intense that it could be heard even through the tunnel and inside the chamber in which the group had stopped to wait. Just as Skara was about to begin asking further questions of his captors, voices could be heard in the far tunnel continuing on past their room, and within moments He-Xur emerged from the shadows, wielding a long parcel wrapped in cloth and sporting a sombre look on his face. He moved to the centre of the room, regarded Skara briefly with a nod and dropped the bundle to the ground, before speaking:

    “I have no doubt, Skara,” he began, “that you understand that it is the will of our king He-Tauhasa that you should fall in combat today for your heresy. It would appear that he has chosen this punishment both as a spectacle for the citizens of Çatalhöyük to enjoy, and perhaps in part also in honour of his relationship to your father, whom he considered at least at one time to be a dear friend and ally. Our king will address his people before you are led to meet your fate. He will use your death as an example in proving to those that would refuse to heed his call to war that a coward’s death is all that will be offered to them. I have been commanded to bring you a choice in weaponry, with which you might honourably participate in your end, though I fear that your choices will do you little good this day, whatever they might be.” He then proceeded to unroll the bundle that he had brought with him and several axes, spears and, curiously, a long length of woven rope rolled-out.

    Skara paused momentarily as he considered He-Xur’s words and the options that were laid out before him. He also contemplated the seemingly hopeless situation that he found himself in, and the intentions that he had had in making the choices he had made. In the end, he decided to try one last time to appeal to He-Xur on a personal level. “My lord,” he started, “did nothing that I have said make any difference to you..? I have known you since we ourselves were children. I have hunted the valley with you in youth, and I have stood by you as you claimed the rulership of our people, before we grew apart. Knowing this, can you still look me in the eye and tell me truthfully that you do not find some reason, some shred of believability in what I have seen, however small..? I have always stood by you, first as a brother and then as your subject. Surely as I go to my own death, I am owed your honest truth.”

    He-Xur looked at Skara for a time, and after a lengthy pause let out a long and resigned sigh. “Skara..” he seemed to be lost for words for a moment, and then realised that whatever words he might have chosen to speak next were not words to be shared lightly. He motioned the four guards to enter the far tunnel, advising them that he would bring Skara through himself in a moment. “Skara, when I ascended to the head of the people of the valley, I have had to change a great many things. No longer could I live as carefree as you and your kin lived. I learned that I must be responsible, not only to He-Tauhasa but to the people of Nevalı Çori. Should there ever be a hardship in the village, I too would suffer the burden with the rest of you. However it is only by the grace and protection of He-Tauhasa that we are allowed to live or die free. It is also by the allegiance of our people to the greater kingdom that we are not seen as a threat and an enemy of peace in the Southern lands. Come whatever may, I must therefore always support his judgement, whatever I might believe and particularly in audience with our people. Do you understand..?”

    For the first time in many years, Skara found in his He-Xur’s countenance a deep and genuine empathy as he extended his right hand to him in a show of friendship not as his lord, but the man he once knew.

    Skara did understand then, and began to consider that perhaps if he might have taken a more private and calculating approach to his warning, things might have worked out differently. He nodded in response, and clasped He-Xur’s hand in kind. No more needed to be said, however as He-Xur cut the bonds from his wrists he cocked his head towards the bundle of weapons that he had left, whispering to Skara, “If I were you however, Skara Tau – I would choose the rope.” He then winked, and Skara immediately reached for the spool of heavy rope and wrapped it around his right shoulder before He-Xur led him down the far tunnel where they met with the rest of the guards. The six of them passed through a small doorway which led out of the greater structure, and into the depression at its center. In the fierce sunlight, he could just make out the silhouetted figure of He-Tauhasa and his champion in the middle of the arena, flanked by a dozen soldiers of the Southern army and found that there were hundreds if not thousands of spectators from the city in attendance, some standing and some sitting around the huge mound of earth that surrounded him.

    The arena itself was crudely constructed, comprising essentially of a massive bowl of earth that had been excavated and arranged to form a steep embankment. Heavy stones had been piled at its lower edge to form a wall some twelve feet high at ground level, and behind the steep rise whereupon the people of the city sat, an arrangement of stones and wooden logs formed an outer wall upon which nine tall fire scaffolds had been built. At the far east and west ends of the arena, two massive stone boulders were set in place to cover larger entrances to the depression (which Skara had guessed allowed for the passage of greater beasts and equipment), the western such boulder sitting at the foot of a much larger stone enclosure. As his eyesight adjusted once more to daylight, Skara was welcomed with a massive roar from the crowd that had gathered, and he nervously acknowledged their booing and cheering with a dispassionate wave of his right hand as he made his way towards He-Tauhasa, who was nearing the end of his speech:

    “People of Çatalhöyük, I therefore thank you again for joining us in witnessing the living justice of your Gods as this man,” he gestured toward Skara with a flabby outstretched right arm, “pays penance for his heresies, and faces punishment for defiance of his king. May the Gods exact their will, and his soul be weighed accordingly in the world beyond.” He-Tauhasa moved toward Skara, bowing only slightly to acknowledge the other man before he, his soldiers and curiously, his champion too, still dressed head to toe in the same red garb that he had seen him in earlier passed him by and returned through the tunnel that he had left, the other guards joining them as they did.

    “Strange,” Skara thought to himself, “that the greatest of the King’s warriors might also take leave of me. If that soldier is not the one I am to face in the arena this day, then who or what in the world is this Murmesh that I have been brought here to fight..?”

    At once, Skara was all alone save for a number of workers at the western end and for several minutes he stood beneath the brilliant mid-morning Sun, looking around the arena and turning a full 360 degrees as those assembled booed, hissed and cursed him. After a long moment passed, he heard a wooden door snap shut as the small entryway was locked and sealed, and He-Tauhasa took up position among the crowd at a rise in the stands true north of the centre of the arena. He noticed roughly a dozen Seers, identifiable by their token conspicuous grey robes take up position on the opposite side of the arena, and when all were present and prepared, the crowd started with a familiar chant of “Murmesh, Murmesh, Murmesh..!” before a loud horn was sounded by the King’s herald, and a flurry of activity could be heard at the western end of the arena.

    Just as several-dozen attendants took up position at the massive stone boulder and began heaving at a number of thick, heavy ropes tied around it, another massive trumpet blast shook the ground. The blast of this second trumpet however was entirely different to the one preceding it, and caused the entire crowd to become deathly quiet. Skara’s knees became weak as the boulder rocked from its position and began to roll away, revealing a massive entrance opposite where he stood and yet another far louder and more powerful blast came directly from within the massive tunnel that had been carved from the earth and which led to the mysterious enclosure at the opposite end. He strained his eyes to see into the darkness of the opening, but could only make out blackness as the attendants finally freed the boulder completely, and they themselves scrambled desperately for the last small entrance in the arena wall, which they quickly closed and locked behind them.

    Skara found himself completely alone within the arena now, the crowd around him seeming all at once to be holding their breath and waiting. Just as he was about to make his way toward the massive opening in the wall, he felt the earth beneath him begin to tremble, and a series of what felt like loud and terrible footsteps started up, causing the crowd to once again erupt with cries of excitement. With a steady saunter, the trumpeter left the shadows and moved into the arena, and as it did Skara finally realised just how impossible his situation was.

    Out of the shadows of the far enclosure, Murmesh walked. Not a man as he had reckoned, Skara recognised immediately the monstrous form of a great beast from the stories and legends that had been told to him as a child. Murmesh was in fact the name given to a great war elephant, those same beasts of old that the Ancients were said to have harnessed and which should have departed from the world following the last retreat of the northern ice. Some twelve feet tall, covered with thick, matted hair and with sharpened tusks stained with dark blood that he could only have assumed remained from previous sacrifices, Murmesh rose up on his hindquarters, bringing both heavy forelegs crashing to the earth with a massive boom which shook the ground and gave a monstrous roar which sent the crowd into a frenzy. Skara stood rooted to the spot, completely frozen by fear and his jaw dropped. Never in his life had he seen such a mammoth beast, and neither in this life nor the next would he have a hope of overcoming it alone. Not with rope, not by spear.. not with a dozen soldiers. “Where and how,” he thought incredulously to himself, “did they find such a creature..?”

    Murmesh stood still for several moments, looking around at the crowd and adjusting to the open air of the arena following a lengthy spell in a dark and, what must have been to him, cramped enclosure. The great beast grunted deeply and started a slow meander, looking first back at the entrance behind it and then out across the depression before setting its sights on Skara, alone and trapped within the confines to the arena. Skara began to panic as the creature’s cold, black eyes widened, it snorted and gave another shrill blast from its trunk. It would be impossible for him to defeat the beast in combat, and there was no way that he could scale the arena walls to reach safety. Even if he could have navigated his way to the top, the crowd and soldiers that lined the summit would just as surely throw him back, if they did not kill him where he was. Slowly, Murmesh began to wander across from the far end of the arena and Skara knew he had to do something.

    In addition to the spool of rope that He-Xur had given him, there was also a sharp ivory hook that had been secured to one end, effectively providing at least some minor offensive ability. As the creature began a slow trot toward him, he knew that he might only have one chance of stopping or at least slowing the creature down before he could formulate a plan that might keep him from winding up as little more than another darker shade of red on its tusks. Murmesh was enormous, well and truly living up to the title that the people had given him and as he moved closer and Skara edged further back towards the eastern stone slab, the elephant was almost galloping. Skara seized his chance to take advantage of the fact that he was at least quicker than the beast. Moments before Murmesh would have run him down, and hoping that the weight of the creature and the momentum of its first attack would carry it into the remaining stone boulder (perhaps dislodging it), he sprinted and dove left of the monster at the last second, sending it tusks-first into the earth before the stone and its body crashing straight into the wall.

    As Murmesh struck the boulder, a great cry rose from the crowd, concerned only that the monster might be injured. The stone itself however was extremely large, solid and only rolled ever so slightly back on its axis before falling once more into place, keeping Skara trapped and the crowd as safe as ever from the spectacle. The beast was stunned momentarily, however it quickly regained its footing and once again and scanned the arena for Skara. Murmesh was enraged, not only by the failed offensive but it had itself been kept a constant state of torment, suffering regular and savage abuse from its handlers within the far enclosure in order to keep it in an ongoing state of frenzy. The giant creature spotted Skara once more, who had by now unwound the spool of rope in the animal’s confusion but before it had a chance to attack again, he was already swinging the hook above his head, and loosed it at the creature’s front left leg. Skara’s aim was true, and the hook swung right around the animal’s limb and on its return buried itself into the heavy muscle of the foreleg, causing it to roar in pain.

    Skara knew that the only chance that he might have of slowing the animal down would be to cause Murmesh to lose his footing, and he hoped that he might be able to bind its legs if he could to move fast enough. Holding the remaining rope, he sprinted again as fast as he could to the right of the monster, hoping to run once around it before it could charge again. He was not quick enough however, and the elephant was still too close to the eastern entrance for him to move safely past it. Murmesh caught Skara on the run and with one great swipe of his trunk, knocked him from his feet, straight into the stone boulder and onto the ground. The crowd at this point were all on their feet, screaming for the animal to put an end to the valley man. He-Tauhasa was smiling the broadest of smiles from his position at the way the event was unfolding, while He-Xur watched on beside him, doing his best to mask a growing concern. Skara was a broad and capable man but this, he felt, gave him little chance of an honourable end. The Seers for their part watched on with an entirely emotionless devotion to the spectacle.

    Skara lay in the dirt for several seconds, dazed somewhat from his head having smashed against the stone and searched the ground around him for the end of the rope. He could not find it for the dust, and raised himself up for a better look however as it cleared, he noticed that the dark shape of the beast had already moved out from the edge of the arena, dragging the rope with it and now stood at its center. Murmesh had created distance between itself and what it reckoned was an already defeated opponent, and was now lining Skara up for one final, fatal charge. A charge that it knew he was too battered to evade and, without his rope and weapon, would be unable to contest.

    The creature sized him up from a distance, and Skara realised that this would be his last stand. He raised himself up to his full height and glanced in the direction first of the Seers, and then straight toward He-Tauhasa who only raised his chin slightly skyward as if to acknowledge the gesture. Skara moved back towards the boulder and held both arms outstretched, gripping the rock. Time itself seemed to slow down as he stood clasping the cold stone blocking the eastern entry to the arena and as he did, he recalled the words of a friend, words that suddenly took on a new meaning:

    “Should you find yourself somehow trapped, and the only way of escape to move through solid stone.. you will do well to remember to use this. Of it, I can say no more that you would understand.” They were the words of Yamnaya, and they were spoken in reference to the same small, spherical vial that he had chosen to keep with him at all times following their meeting. He had buried it in his robes when he was led from the village, and had brought it with him on this day, tucked into his tunic. Though he might not have understood much about the compound he carried, he knew somehow that it was meant for this moment.

    He fumbled within his clothes as the shadow at the center of the arena first kicked at the earth before it, and then broke into a trot and then a gallop toward him. “The vial..!” He panicked, “Where in Anu’s name is the vial..?!” The compound must have slipped from the hidden pocket within his clothes when the beast had belted him against the wall, and as the dust cleared completely he could just see it glinting in the sunlight some ten feet away of him in the direction of Murmesh, who was quickly gaining speed. Knowing that it might be his only chance, his legs sprang quickly and thankfully into action this time, and he immediately dove forward to take it.

    With the creature quickly closing in, he leapt forward and landed face down in the dirt in front of the vial and with his outstretched right arm picked it out of the dust and in the same motion, turned and threw it as hard as he could, as accurately as he could at the stone boulder behind. Those in the crowd had sensed that there was something more to the prisoner lunging forward in the direction of the beast, if not just an act of pure insanity and as it closed in held their breaths as one. To Skara’s astonishment, his aim was true and the crystal vial shattered directly in the center of the massive stone boulder.

    What happened next caused not only the spectators in the arena to gasp audibly, but the creature itself to stop dead in its tracks. As the invisible contents of the vial erupted over the boulder, an incredible flash of violet light burst forth from it in every direction, as if coming from the stone itself. Many shielded their eyes including Skara, and Murmesh stopped some twenty feet short of the prone man, rearing up onto his hind legs and bellowing in fright. The flash of light persisted for several long seconds, blinding everyone before returning to the surface of the stone, which began to glow a deep and fiery red, giving off an incredible heat as it did.

    The boulder flared intensely for another several seconds, before an amazing change began to take place in its composition. Much the same as ice might be heated directly into steam when struck with a hot iron, the stone itself appeared to sublimate in reaction to the compound, becoming lighter than air – the boulder literally dissipated into a thin vapour which was taken by the wind and before anyone realised it, it was simply no longer there. It truly was an incredible moment, the sort for which there is no appropriate human reaction. It might have been reasonable then that Murmesh was the first creature in many long moments to move, as it immediately saw its ticket out from the arena, trumpeted loudly and galloped out through the entrance into the space beyond where before the way was blocked. The great creature roared and thundered past Skara and as it did, the crowd suddenly realised that he was free and immediately descended into uproar.

    Skara himself was also stunned, and could not believe that in the massive opening through which the creature fled had stood a giant wall of stone only moments before. As the panic intensified however and the sound of barking orders from He-Tauhasa’s bodyguards filled the air and mingled with the screams of the spectators, Skara leapt to his feet and he too ran out through the opening and into the city beyond. Ihreikas shouted loudly for his soldiers to restore order, and as Skara bolted through the gate he locked eyes once more with the solemn champion of the King for only a moment as he stood beside his master, feeling a cold chill run down his spine as the other man remained motionless, simply staring after him as he ran.

    What followed in the great arena was the longest period of anarchy seen within the walls of the capital since the foundation of the city, as men, women and children all scrambled from their positions and made their way desperately either to safety, or back out into the city to warn their friends and family that the beast had been loosed. Skara sprinted straight for the nearest northern exit in the city walls, and as the guards had quickly abandoned their posts to assist in controlling the population, managed to slip away unchallenged.

    Dawn Roared Over the Horizon..

    ‘WAYFARER’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

    [Harlia, the Outer Claw]

    Dawn roared over the horizon like a violet storm as the first sun rose over Harlia, instantly chasing a dry, bitter chill from the landscape and leaving in its place a wet and almost suffocating heat. Gundar let out a guttural grunt and spluttered through his yellowed tusks as he stirred beside the dying embers at the heart of the encampment, eventually conceding as the night’s thick mists began to billow skyward that it was time to wake up and get moving.

    Invigorated by the sudden warmth, the rest of his squadron joined him in rising awkwardly up on their hind legs and shook themselves about in such a way as to dislodge their rigid front and rear shells, which had a habit of locking up to preserve body heat while they slept. One by one, he and the other officers in the company extinguished completely the smouldering remains of fires now entirely unnecessary and began barking the morning’s orders at the rest of their number, who were already lining up by rank to receive them.

    Heir to the First System and acting commander of the Holy Legions of the Veil, Gundar had been elected on merit to head a special tactical operation whereby he and his hand-picked crew were to deliver a payload to the homeworld of an enemy with which his people, the Threa had been warring for decades. They were to deploy the final state of a top-secret weapon, a biological Doomsday Bomb developed by the best and brightest scientific minds of his order to a dark region of deep space called the Rua’Maat, wherein their arch enemy and the greatest ongoing threat to order and security in the civilised galaxy dwelt; the Skrell.

    Instead, the small fleet that had been assigned to protect them had been ambushed at the edge of mapped space, perhaps (he suspected) due to a tip-off from a traitor in their midst, and his own crew left for dead in a crippled ship hurtling towards the strange world on which they now found themselves, demoralised and completely unable to return home under their own power.

    The world itself was positioned in a distant binary system between a close but relatively benign red giant and a farther flung but incredibly intense violet star. Any visitors to the surface of the planet could expect to face long days that grew gradually more hot and humid as greater volumes of its stagnant, shallow oceans were allowed to sublimate, and short frosty nights at intervals of only half of what we on Earth might be used to.

    The dense, wet atmosphere also had a curious effect on the thick, low vegetation which grew in patches everywhere on the planet’s surface, causing many varieties to sprout scores of tendril-like streamers high into the air by day as a means of extracting moisture from the atmosphere, and to snake those same weird tendrils haphazardly across the ground at night, forming a thick carpet to absorb dew and condensation from the topsoil. Several varieties of scrub had actually adapted to the extreme environment by becoming almost entirely lighter than air, taking root in thick pockets of mist and moisture and floated about the landscape like giant, bilious tumbleweeds. It was a strange world indeed, and stranger still that a well-armed contingent of the Veil had found themselves stranded here, frustrated and anxious to return to the ongoing conflict that had caused their vessel to crash-land several days earlier.

    As soon as all of their weaponry and gear had been accounted for and their battalion assembled in formation, Urm, Gundar’s second in command gave the order to continue the long march that they had started-out on the previous day. They were headed towards a towering band of white, glistening mountains that their scouts had discovered lay to the north and in which they hoped to find the necessary ore and mineral deposits needed to repair their battered ship’s engines so that they might resume their course and complete their offensive.

    The Skrell, for a visual reference could have best been described as a race of monstrous insects. Bugs in stature almost comparable in size to the Threa (but nowhere near as solid) that had somehow developed a devious cunning and almost collective intellect with which they too had mastered the science of flight and the ability to travel between worlds. So long as he drew breath, Gundar would never abandon his directive and remained driven to eradicating the hated enemy of the Threa at all costs and with a frenzied, almost religious determination. They marched as one, hooves pounding the flailing foliage back into the earth as they went and resolved to cover as much ground as they could before the next nightfall, some fourteen Threan hours away by their reckoning.

    They had only walked an hour or so when without warning, and just as the second sun finally crowned the horizon behind them, the haze was split by a chillingly familiar sound and all hell broke loose. From somewhere up ahead, the unmistakeable buzz of a thousand Skrell taking flight filled the air as a massive dark cloud of wasp-like bodies rose skyward in a whirling plume and bore down on the Threa like a swarm of monstrous hornets. Urm quickly cocked his snout back to address the Threa behind him and snorted, “Draw your weapons, three deep and angle high – set full charges and watch your flanks..!” as the cloud bore down and within seconds, the air was ablaze with blasts of high-energy plasma and the deadly barbs and talons of the descending Skrell who were hell-bent on killing as many of the invading force as swiftly as they could.

    The battle raged for over an hour, with neither side claiming a clear foothold from the other but both felling more of the opposing force than either could afford. “By the stars – what are they doing here..?” thought Gundar as his troops fought furiously to keep them at bay, “When our ship was attacked, our defenders drew their legions away from us. We weren’t followed to the planet’s surface – how did they know we were here..?” He was now convinced that they had been betrayed, but as more and more of the enemy closed in took up arms with the rest of the group and allowed his instinct and training take over, firing precision blasts at the attackers in a desperate attempt to break their ranks.

    Just as the insurrection was complete and the fighting at its most ferocious, from somewhere deep behind enemy lines a heavy tactical spore was loosed which whistled as it flew through a break in their lines before it ricochet off of the side of Gundar’s skull and exploded into a group of Threa several yards behind him. As he lost consciousness, he became aware of the strangest sensation, as though his spirit was somehow ripped violently from his body and hurtled across the entire expanse of the galaxy at the speed of light before darkness finally took him, and he was gone.

    [Freehold Hospital, Saturday Morning]

    Shortly before midday there came a knock on the door to Monitoring Room 14 of the Freehold Hospital’s Cancer Wing. The noise woke Alex from a long sleep and strange, alien dream and he slowly and painfully lifted his torso up onto his elbows, calling out, “Come in, I was just getting up.” As the door creaked open, he quickly shot a glance at the alarm clock beside his bed. “Shit,” he exclaimed aloud. It was already twelve thirty – he had slept in again and missed his morning check-in down the hall.

    Ever since he had been admitted for round the clock observation he’d found himself sleeping longer and longer, something he was warned might happen as his system struggled to adjust to the chemotherapy and the degenerative nature of the cancer which riddled his body. His nurse entered with a trademark frown followed closely by his assigned physician, Dr. Holzer who himself only gazed intensely at a clipboard which held his evaluations of Alex’s condition to date. Alex immediately wondered what sort of information it could have been that had held his interest so.

    Thirty eight years old, Alex had never managed to save any remarkable amount of money, living paycheck to paycheck for the better part of his life, had never married and really lived his life as though he was either just killing time until his ship came in, or that he’d somehow make a windfall winning a lottery he’d never bothered to enter. He had been essentially lazy, coasting from job to job, place to place and moving between cliques until he found himself ultimately broke, miserable and unable to really consider anyone who remained in his life as anything more than just a colleague or a casual acquaintance. He had slowly become the poster-boy for what he saw as a transformed and largely atomised society, and had long since given up on the idea of reinventing himself.

    Despite so much encouragement from his parents who had years ago conceded that their only son might never truly find his feet, his diagnosis some six months earlier had all but guaranteed that his mark on the world would stand to be little more than a cautionary tale of wasted potential. A life of excess and bad ideas, cigarettes and heavy drinking had taken its toll, and while he had made what he considered to be many special memories along the way, his legacy was nothing near what he might in his youth have predicted it to become.

    In truth, he’d always yearned to become a writer, devouring volumes of Science Fiction and Fantasy throughout his childhood and had always anticipated that he’d one day find the time to tell a story of his own. Unfortunately though as he continued to get in his own way, and in spite of a few promising starts, he had never found it in him to see it through.

    “Dr. Holzer,” he began sheepishly, “I’m so sorry – I must have slept through my alarm. The treatments have left me extremely tired lately. If I can reschedule, I’ll make sure to get up and about tomorrow.” The doctor hardly moved, barely acknowledging Alex as he continued to flick through the notes on his clipboard and his nurse walked to the other side of his bed, proceeding to decant a fresh glass of water before removing a tray of scraps from the night before and a bunch of flowers that had wilted at his bedside.

    His mother would still bring flowers and gifts at every weekly visit, insisting that hospital wards were ‘cold and unfriendly places, needing as much brightening up as they could get.’ Alex twiddled his thumbs and stared expectantly at Dr. Holzer, nervously waiting for him to speak. Finally, the other man dropped the clipboard down to his side and regarded Alex with a deep sigh and a look which caused him no small amount of distress.

    “Mr. Agnew,” he began, “I’ve just been taking a look at the most recent set of results from your treatment, and thought I should come by directly and speak with you in person.” Still nervous, but also a little relieved that the doctor had not stopped by in person just to chastise him for missing his earlier appointment, Alex grunted as if to suggest he continue. “I’m afraid there’s really no easy way to say this, and it pains me to be the one to have to do so. But I didn’t think it was fair to make you wait.”

    Alex began to sweat. He glanced at his nurse, who had taken up a position beside Dr. Holzer, and noticed with surprise that her typically hard features had all of a sudden softened into a look of concern. Her eyes would not meet his, instead darting almost nervously around the room as she rolled back on her ankles, clasped her hands together and did her best to otherwise remain perfectly still. “Doctor, what is it..? Is there something wrong with my dosage – will I need to increase the number of sessions we’re taking..?” He was concerned now, and more than anything just wanted him to spit it out already.

    “Alex, I’m afraid that the treatment hasn’t taken. Despite having reached you at a relatively early stage in your cancer’s development, it appears that the chemotherapy has had little to no effect in halting the growth of the existing tumours in your chest and lungs. In addition to this..” he started, trailing-off as he considered the best way to share the remainder of his findings with him and Alex, who could wait no longer stammered, “Come on, doctor, what is it – I need to know.”

    He continued, “Very well. Our latest scan has revealed a third tumour that we were either previously unaware of, or that has developed extremely quickly in the most recent weeks you’ve spent here with us. To be clear, it’s very large as standards go, and unfortunately in this case extremely malignant. Unlike those we’ve been working so far to neutralise, this third tumour appears to be located directly at the base of your occipital lobe, and given its proximity to vital blood flow to the spinal region is.. completely inoperable. I’m so sorry.”

    “The occipital lobe, my.. brain..? I have a brain tumour..?” Alex asked, incredulous that no-one had managed to pick up on such a thing earlier. “Jesus, and you can’t operate, you can’t increase my dosage to treat it now before it gets any worse..?” He asked. “I’m afraid that as your treatment to date has had no effect on those tumours in your chest, any attempt to increase your dosage would prove ineffective at best, and at worst could risk further damage to the surrounding tissue.” His doctor continued, “In spite of anything we might otherwise be able to do for you, we estimate that you have between one to two weeks at most before this third growth reaches a terminal size, and even then it might unfortunately be sooner.”

    “We’ve been able to confirm that this is more than likely also the cause for both your unusual sleeping patterns, and for the migraines and visual hallucinations you’ve described to our staff over the past couple of weeks. Due to the location of the growth and the energy that your body will expend coping with it, it’s likely you’ll continue to need longer and longer periods of rest until eventually.. again, I’m so, so sorry. Yesterday’s tests were the first to show, and we’d never have even thought to scan for it if not for the headaches. We’ll do our very best to ensure you’re as comfortable as possible until that time.”

    Alex felt as though he’d been kicked in the stomach. All of a sudden he couldn’t breathe and fell back into his pillow, just staring at the ceiling. “Terminal..!” he thought to himself. “Thirty eight years old, and that’s it – poof. It’s all over. Terminal.. terminal.” The word bounced around in his head a hundred times before he had the wits to reply, still staring at the ceiling, “Thank you, doctor. I’m going to need a few moments to get my head around it. I’m not sure,” He began, and Dr. Holzer cut him off, “We have the absolute very best grief counsellors here at Freehold who can help you come to terms with your situation, and I’ll be back to check-in again with you later this afternoon. We still have a number of evaluations we’d like to run, and of course to provide you with more information regarding your condition. If there’s anything at all we can do for you, Nurse Piper here,” he motioned to the nurse beside him, still wearing her best mask of empathy, “will be assigned to answer any calls that come through from you. I’d best get back to my rounds and to let this all sink in. I’m sorry, Alex – we’ve given it everything we’ve got.” He forced a last compassionate smile before turning and leaving the room, his nurse close behind with Alex’s tray and once again, he was alone.

    Still staring at the ceiling, Alex sighed the deepest sigh of resignation and closed his eyes once more. “Terminal..” the word kept flashing in his mind. “How will I tell Mum and Dad – this will kill them. There’s so much I’ve never done, so much I thought I’d do.” He began to think about the friends he’d let slip away, the opportunities in his life that he’d let pass him by and all of the little things he’d planned to do but for some reason had never started. “I’ll never write that novel, or take that round-the-world trip. I’ll never see the Northern Lights or stand atop the Grand Canyon. I’ll never get to hold my own child, or the hand of the woman I love. I’ll die instead at thirty eight, riddled with cancer, alone, bedridden and forgotten. What a waste,” he sighed again, finding that the shock had completely tired him out, “what an absolute waste.” He decided in spite of Dr. Holzer’s prediction that the day was now more or less ruined and within minutes had once again drifted off into a deep sleep.

    [Harlia, the Next Day]

    Gundar slowly opened his eye, and as he did a searing pain coursed down the length of the right side of his body. Disorientated by the blow and the residual effects of the spore, he slowly rose to his full height, clutching his bloody head as he did and turned to reorientate himself with his surrounds. He had been instantly knocked unconscious as the weapon exploded and Urm, seeing his commander felled had immediately cut a swath through the enemy horde, thrown his limp and lifeless body over one shoulder and bounded to the rear of the company to deposit Gundar safely behind a hillock before returning to the fray, firing all the while at the swarm of Skrell that were still thick in the air.

    The fighting had grown into a frenzy in the minutes that followed, as the Threa became incensed at seeing their leader fall in battle. Within a short time, their bloodlust had driven them to break the enemy lines, and what few Skrell remained after most of their power cells were depleted had soared high into the planet’s atmosphere and scattered in all directions, leaving them to count their dead and set a perimeter as the leaderless group debated what to do next.

    When they noticed him stumbling about, half-blind and splashed with the deep blue stains of his own blood, several Threa immediately rushed to support their commander by propping up both of his arms and guided him carefully to the center of the group. Gundar’s hearts sank when they passed a pile of several dozen of his best soldiers’ corpses – friends and comrades he had known from his youth that had been recovered and heaped roughly atop three stout pyres formed from piles of the driest vegetation they could find, and immediately he felt compelled to address the company.

    After a quick briefing as to the extent of their losses and the assurance that no further Skrell had been sighted following the attack, he motioned to those beside him to let him stand with a sweep of his right foreclaw and called-out to the rest for their undivided attention.

    “My brothers,” he began, “today we have been taken for fools by the enemy, and by our own lack of vigilance have allowed many of our number (he gestured toward the pyres), TOO many of our number to be lost. How they were allowed to take us by surprise I am uncertain, though I fear that their anticipation of our movements in this wasteland and indeed the initial ambush that caused us to be stranded here were too precise, too calculated to have been a mere matter of luck.” The assertion that their part in the mission to the Rua’Maat had been betrayed to the enemy was clear, and caused the group to murmer of treason and treachery loudly amongst themselves.

    Gundar went on, “Know this; we have been trusted by the keepers of the Veil with the holiest of charges. Fractured though we are my comrades, we are far from broken.” He pointed to a large metallic urn among their stores which contained the concentrated payload that had been salvaged from their vessel after it crashed into the planet’s surface, and which they had brought with them for fear of losing it to the enemy, “As long as the weapon remains safe and can still be deployed, deployed it must be. Our mission was simple; arrive at that system the Skrell call their home, and deliver the payload to their homeworld. They say that this will turn the tides of war, and lead us to victory in the Great Conflict, and I believe this with every fibre of my being. As long as there is breath in my body, I will see this done. For the Veil,” he barked, “and for the Threa – we carry on..!”

    The small force stood stoic, listening intently to the words of their leader and grunted loudly in unison as he completed his dialogue. Without further discussion, the group divided their equipment and weapons and, pausing only to fire the pyres which held the bodies of their fallen, set off once more in the direction the glistening mountains to the north. This time however, recon parties were also sent in all directions to raise alarm should anything even remotely resembling enemy scouts be seen flocking at the horizon. They would not be caught-out twice.

    The long Harlian day was reaching its zenith by the time they finally arrived at the foot of the mountain range, which dazzlingly reflected the intense violet light of the system’s primary star. In spite of the fact that the Threan home world was itself stifling from constant volcanism and that they much preferred the heavy humidity over the freezing alien night, the fierceness of the two combined suns above them and their painstakingly slow crawl across the sky caused many of their number to become quickly fatigued.

    With near unslakable thirsts they persevered, several of their weapons discharging randomly as they went as their components expanded and triggered in the awful heat. Urm instructed the group to direct their barrels skyward or at the ground to avoid any unwanted accidents, and as they finally entered the shadow of the mountain they stopped to take stock of their arsenal and to erect makeshift humidifiers with which to catch and replenish their water supplies from the muggy atmosphere of the planet.

    Gundar commanded several small groups to explore the nearest outcrop in the hopes of finding sufficient ore and the correct deposits of certain elements; particularly organic solids and any endemic silicates and while they waited, requested Urm, his weapons expert Thrang and a security detail join him in ascending the nearest peak of the curious range in the hopes of seeing what might lie beyond its summit. While he was reluctant to spend any longer on that godforsaken planet than absolutely necessary, Gundar felt that given the recent skirmish he couldn’t be too careful in knowing exactly what might lay in wait for them beyond their line of sight. The group took a stock of a small provision of water and extra power cells for their weapons before allowing those that remained to rest and recover while they turned and made their way up the mountain.

    The rock itself was covered with a thick, sticky layer of a strange, translucent fungus which seemed to ooze from higher elevations in the range like a slowly melting glaze. It became clear that this was what gave the mountain its highly reflective quality that had beckoned them from a distance. The contingent found scaling the rock face slow going, and in several places at one time or another they all managed to lose their footing, almost plummeting back down to the base of the climb before catching themselves at the final desperate moment.

    After several hours, one of their security detail who had managed to pass beyond the others and scout ahead had finally reached the summit where he could get a glimpse of the lands beyond the peaks, and removed a telescope from his belt to get a better look at what lay ahead. Seeing this from below, Urm called up to him jokingly, asking “What do you see, soldier..? Fresh water – a whorehouse in abundant shade, perhaps..?” Immediately the lieutenant dropped to his stomach, and called back lowly, “Shh..! Don’t say a word. By all that’s holy, Urm – you must be absolutely silent. Get up here, right now..!”

    The rest of the group exchanged worried glances from their own footholds, and immediately scrambled as quickly and as quietly as possible to join their comrade at the summit, careful too to keep as low as practical and fumbled with their own telescopes to see what it was that had rattled him so. From their vantage point, they followed his gaze across the valley that opened out from the other side of the outcrop, and quietly gasped in shock as they focussed on the crooked spires of what appeared to be an unknown and obviously highly secret Skrell facility, complete with its own bustling hive and several brand new star cruisers armed to the teeth. It was clearly a new spaceport and weapons development facility, one that had only recently been put into commission and that did not appear in any of their previous intel. “My friends,” whispered Gundar with a crooked smile, “It appears we’ve struck the mother lode.”

    The facility was several leagues away from where their battalion had stopped to rest beneath them, and the air around it was thick with swarms of Skrell from several castes that were actively engaged both in crude construction and combat exercises beneath the midday heat. Gundar immediately began to formulate a plan with which to approach this new situation, and propped himself up slightly to better examine the sprawling mountain range which separated his force from their foe. A short journey to the east he noticed a wide pass between two peaks in the range that might provide ample cover and minimal duress by which they could move through the mountains with their equipment unnoticed.

    Through a long band of thick vegetation they could, if they were extremely careful, reach the edge of the Skrell compound virtually undetected. He mused on his plan of attack for several moments, before deciding that if they might commandeer one of the enemy’s own vessels, if they could apply their knowledge of the enemy’s technology toward utilising their own ship as a means of sneaking into the Rua’Maat unchallenged that they might yet be able to complete their mission after all. There could be no room for error. But neither could they pass up such an incredible opportunity.

    He quickly called the others to follow him in returning down the range to rejoin their company, and hearts racing explained to them his plan. “This, commander, is why you lead.” replied Thrang as he gripped Gundar’s shoulder while the others merely grinned and nodded in agreement. Their descent took several hours, and required much greater care in navigating the slick fungus which had nearly caused them to come unstuck before, but eventually they rejoined their comrades below and Gundar shared with them their findings, to similar nods and grunts from the company. He implored them to remain silent and vigilant, insisting that no fires be lit that night and that they bide their time until the first light of the next morning to launch their attack.

    Rations were quickly divided and a discreet camp set-up at the southern mouth of the pass as they prepared, charging weapons and settling on a small diversion west of the facility as a means of drawing the bulk of enemy fire from their own number. Volunteers for the honour of participating in such a crucial but high-risk operation were, as always with the Threa, far more than what was needed. Gundar was pleased, and never prouder to call himself a Soldier of the Veil. Once preparations were complete, the company settled-in at dusk for a long and much needed rest ahead of the carnage that was to follow, the air positively electric with anticipation for the promised bloodshed.

    [Freehold Hospital, Sunday Morning]

    Alex awoke heart-pounding, short of breath and in a cold sweat. The realisation that his most recent visit from Dr. Holzer had in fact been real was only a secondary thought in his mind compared with the vivid, fantastic dream that he had just experienced. In truth, his dreams had taken a recurring theme of late, and as he found himself sleeping longer and deeper as his condition deteriorated, they had become all the more lucid, linear and lifelike. He had mentioned the dreams earlier to Dr. Holzer and even his parents, all of whom simply dismissed it as a probable side effect of the medications that he was taking, and nothing to be alarmed about.

    For Alex though, the almost nightly fantasies that he had been engaged in, the strange worlds and creatures that reappeared night after night had begun to really frighten and, in a way, excite him. They had always started the same, and in each of them he seemed to play the same role; some sort of figurehead in a weird, quasi-military culture. He would feel acutely that he somehow belonged to this strange and alien race, and where he had become weak and listless in reality as the sickness took hold, in his dreams he felt robust, healthy – almost completely indestructible.

    He slapped himself awake, shook his head quickly from side to side and took a deep breath as he looked around his room. “Still here,” was all he could manage to say to himself as the gravity of his situation slowly edged-out the residual adrenaline left by the dream. He carefully dropped his legs out from underneath the sheets and gingerly set his feet upon the floor. Somehow he had managed this time to sleep right through the afternoon and most of the night, waking up just as first light of the following morning crept around the thick hospital curtains of his ward. He yawned and shuffled his way to the bathroom to shower and shave, brush his teeth and change out of his usual hospital garb and into something more presentable.

    It was a Sunday, and as always his parents would be stopping by to bring him a hot breakfast from the cafe down the street (a welcome respite from the usual hospital fare, which he hated) and catch him up on news from the rest of the family. On any other occasion, he might have taken more of a blasé approach to preparing for this, however as he would have to break the news of recent developments to them today, he decided to look and feel as best he was able. In actual fact, he knew that it would be just about the most difficult thing a man could ever have to impart to his parents; the knowledge that their only son was dying and would pass before either of them. Alex loved his parents deeply, and he was seriously dreading the conversation that had to come.

    They arrived at the hospital a little after 9am, and after checking-in and getting the usual greetings out of the way, Alex proceeded to sit them both down, wasting no time in breaking the news of his condition. As careful as he was, the moment the finality of his situation sank in it was all that his dear mother could do to stop herself from breaking down completely. Before he knew it, the three of them were in each other’s embrace at his bedside, his parents shaking uncontrollably and his father only able to ask over and over again, “Is that it..? Is there nothing at all that they can do..?” To which he would reply, “Just keep me comfortable, Dad. There’s nothing more to it – it’s just my time.”

    He went on at length to convince them that in spite of everything, he’d led a good life, if not a little unexciting and that “While it’s a horrible, terrible situation, we can only make the most of the time we have.” Dr. Holzer joined them after a short while to run Mr. and Mrs Agnew through exactly why things had turned out as they had, and suggested that the three of them speak with the hospital counsellor before they go anywhere as “Awful as this truly, truly is, there are arrangements that the three of you should endeavour to make together, for when the time comes.”

    They thanked the doctor as he left, and spent most of the remainder of the day talking. They laughed together, cried and reminisced on just about everything from more recent times in his life right back to his childhood, which Alex had always felt were his best years. So much had simply not come together for him as he got older, but during those early years and on into his teens, he’d truly felt as if he could accomplish anything. He was thankful that they stayed as long as they did, eventually conceding as the evening wore on into the night that they should be getting home to make arrangements and to contact his other relatives that might also want to see him before the time came.

    He embraced them two, three times before they did, and they promised to again visit him the next day, when they might be able to stay longer. His mother couldn’t keep from crying as she waved goodbye from the doorway, while his father did his best to put on a brave face. “My son,” he said softly, locking eyes for several moments before turning to leave and reluctantly closing the door to Alex’s room.

    As he lay there in bed, alone once more, his thoughts turned again to the life he was leaving behind. He was himself in terrible debt and living alone in a one bedroom apartment outside of town, before his health had really deteriorated. Prior to that he had been working long hours at a job he hated for less than he’d felt he deserved before his diagnosis, spending most of his free time watching television, or otherwise entertaining a black and white cat he’d bought together with an ex-girlfriend that he had planned to move in with several years before. That among other things had never panned out, and so his only real motivation for getting out of bed in the morning had become a need to show his parents that he was capable, independent and to provide some hope that he might still one day get it together.

    Now, he didn’t know what to think. He was tired again, and so set about preparing for another long, restful sleep. As he lay awake, and before he eventually drifted off he noticed a strange tingling sensation gnawing at the base of his skull, where the back of his head met his spine. His legs had also begun to grow heavy, as though all feeling was beginning to numb and even as he finally lost consciousness he couldn’t for the life of him stop both of his feet from twitching.

    [Harlia, the Morning of the Attack]

    The Threa slept soundly through the short Harlian night save for a few that shared the watch, and as the ominous glow of daybreak began to paint the horizon a threatening shade of blue and violet once more, they woke and began to prepare for the short, quick march north to the Skrell facility. The tension in the cool morning air was palpable as they crouched in the undergrowth and snaked their way toward the enemy hive, careful not to so much as snap a single branch or twig underfoot.

    The plan was simple; they were to reach a series of shallow hollows at the eastern edge of their base and lay low, and as soon as those charged with their diversion were able to detonate a series of small portable explosives in several key locations across the other side of the valley, they would make for the nearest alien craft with extreme haste. With no small amount of luck, they should be able to overpower any resistance left guarding the facility, and after loading the weapon on board would allow their comrades just enough time to double back and join them before firing up its engines and making for the skies before they could give chase. It seemed like the perfect plan, but nonetheless Gundar was explicit in demanding the utmost caution and care as they approached their destination.

    When their battalion had finally crossed the valley and were within yards of the hollows however, their worst fears were suddenly realised as one of their own number broke free of the hollow and ran directly toward the central hive of the enemy, screaming at the top of his lungs and firing wildly into the air as he went. “The informant..!” Gundar bellowed, immediately realising what was happening and cursing himself for not weeding him out sooner. “They’re here..!” The rogue soldier yelled, “Open the gates and let me in – we have a deal..!” He only managed a few dozen yards before Urm commanded a volley be loosed at the traitor, frying his upper body and quickly freeing him from the dishonour of his actions.

    The company held their breaths as his body hit the dirt, time standing still as they strained to hear any sign of motion from the compound. Sure enough, within seconds the familiar buzz of thousands of insect-like wings could be heard starting up, as hundreds of vivid yellow Skrell funnelled up and out of the upper entrance to their hive and fanned-out in a thick swarm above the facility, searching in every direction for the source of the commotion.

    Just as the last of their number took to the air and they began breaking out in all directions including that of Gundar and his soldiers near the hollows, several massive explosions rang out across the valley from the diversion team on the far edge. “Fools..!” cursed Gundar under his breath, “Did they not see that we’d been given away..? With all of those Skrell already in the air, they’ll be seen and overrun in seconds..!” There was nothing for it if he was to provide his subordinates across the valley with any sort of fighting chance, and so he took to his full height, beckoning the rest to follow and charged in the direction of the Skrell compound with a roar.

    “For the Veil, for Threa and by the Highest State of Being – for the eternal glory of valiant death..!” he cried loudly. The rest of the battalion joined him in charging the facility as the huge, dense cloud of Skrell split into two distinct formations; one that immediately swarmed in the direction of the explosions and a second, far larger group that descended on the invading Threa to instigate what would be heralded as perhaps the greatest single firefight against insurmountable odds since the beginning of the Great Conflict.

    The carnage that followed could not easily be described. It seemed as though the plume of Skrell that erupted from the hive was endless, and the ceaseless gunfire from the Threa illuminated the pale morning haze like so many thousand brilliant red fireworks bursting into the sky all at once. Somehow in spite of their err, they had still managed to catch their enemy almost completely unprepared, and while many of their number were simply torn to pieces once the swarm reached striking distance, for every Threa that perished, a hundred of the insectoid army were felled from the skies and ground underfoot as Gundar, Urm and their forces continued to advance with the frenzied determination of madmen.

    The Threa had soon cut such a heavy swath through their ranks that a clear passage to the enemy fleet suddenly presented itself, and with a final shout of determination they charged toward it as fast as their powerful legs allowed them to bound across the length of the compound. Within moments, Gundar had reached the gangway to the largest vessel, and when two Skrell launched themselves at him from out of the doorway he immediately dropped his weapon, instead wrapping two monstrously clawed hands around what might have been their necks and squeezed with such power his assailants shrieked an ear-splitting shriek and broke clean in two.

    They stormed the entrance to the ship and with heavy cover fire, made for the helm without a second’s delay. Urm motioned for Thrang to take the throttle, as he was the one among them most familiar with the enemy’s technology and in no time at all, a loud hum filled the cockpit as the strange vessel gradually woke from its slumber. Before they closed the gangway, Gundar ordered the rest of their number to hold rank outside on the off-chance that at least some among the diversion team might make it back to them.

    Seconds felt like minutes as the hail of charred Skrell continued to rain down around them, and then minutes like hours as they waited, squinting into the undergrowth behind them. Sure enough, just as they were about to abandon all hope, plasma fire burst from the treeline, and a dozen Threa, beaten, bruised and bloody sprinted across the facility, the air now thick with fire and Skrell and they too charged the gangway. The door was quickly sealed and the vessel’s engines burst into life, sending their craft hurtling into the planet’s atmosphere and vaporising hundreds of pursuing Skrell in the process.

    As soon as they cleared orbit and could finally engage the ship’s hyperdrive, the Threa let out a resounding cheer. They had done it – HE had done it..! Gundar was hoisted ceremoniously onto his comrades’ shoulders as the magnitude of their most daring escape finally struck them. The payload was on board, they were back in space – their mission could finally be completed. Never in his life had Gundar felt such a sense of accomplishment, of pride as he felt at that very moment. He had taken the ultimate risk, seizing the opportunity that had presented itself and had won.

    He thanked each and every Threa on board individually for their valour, and prayed fealty to the Highest State of Being for providing guidance and protection during the insurrection, as well as for the souls of those that did not survive. Battered, bloody and still in shock, he dropped down beside a pylon in the ship’s control room, and closed his eye – “Onward to the Rua’Maat, Gundar, onward to victory..!” This was his final self-satisfied thought as he succumbed to exhaustion, and a well needed rest.

    [Freehold Hospital, Monday Morning]

    It was only the next morning when Alex finally lost all sensation in both legs, and found that he could no longer move them at all, let alone leave his bed. Against his doctor’s generous prediction, the tumour in the back of his skull had quickly reached a critical mass and had begun not only to crush several key areas of his brain that controlled major parts of his body but was now also restricting the flow of oxygen to it. His final dream had been so much more vivid than the first.. the firefight, the Skrell and his own part in it all.

    His hallucinations had begun to spill over into his waking thoughts, and within a few short hours he found himself flitting in and out of consciousness involuntarily. It was all happening so fast, and when his parents eventually arrived escorted by his doctor, they just couldn’t understand how he had one day been so lucid, so much like the Alex that they knew and loved and the next, could only stay focussed for mere minutes at a time.

    “Mr. and Mrs. Agnew,” Dr. Holzer started, “I know it doesn’t make much sense. When we described to Alex the window of time that was left, we could only be so general. His condition is far advanced, and there is simply no way of providing an absolutely clear evaluation of how quickly his other functions might be affected, nor how soon.. it appears that the pressure that the tumour is exerting on his brain has reached a critical point, whereby there’s very little chance of real lucidity from here on in.”

    His mother was beside herself, and once again Mr. Agnew asked of him, “There’s nothing that can be done..? Just what the hell are we supposed to do now..?” Dr. Holzer’s expression fell, and he replied, “As drastic as it seems, at this stage I would strongly recommend placing your son in an induced coma, wherein we might buy time to continue to evaluate the progression of his condition in a stable state and at least he might then, when the time comes, find peace in a dignified end. Once again, I’m very sorry and of course, the call is entirely yours,” he turned and pointed to the doorway, “I’ll be out in the hall while you talk it through.”

    He shook Mr. Agnew’s hand and left, and for a long time Alex lay there in his bed, eyes flitting as he mumbled more and more incoherently, for brief moments showing recognition, but for the most part only muttering a great deal about somebody called ‘Gundar,’ a secret mission, and a great ship in outer space. “My beautiful boy,” Mrs Agnew said softly, as she stroked a wave of hair from his forehead. “So young – so much potential. It’s just not fair.”

    The two stayed by his bedside for hours, discussing which action to take as Alex drifted farther and farther from coherence and eventually slipped into an almost catatonic state in which no part of him moved but for a constant flicker of both eyelids. Finally, after much deliberation they both agreed that he would want to sleep now, rather than slowly fall to pieces in his final days and gave Dr. Holzer the authority he needed to induce a coma, sending their only son to his rest for the last time.

    That afternoon, as they watched from his bedside, the necessary steps were taken, and Alexander Agnew slipped forever from consciousness, into dream and everything beyond.

    [Deep Space, Exact Location: Classified]

    Like a shot, Gundar’s great eye flew open and he sprang to his feet. He was all of a sudden strangely energised, feeling more focussed and alert than he had ever felt before and he scanned the room in which he found himself as memories of the past few days’ events came flooding back. He was on the bridge of the Skrell battlecruiser, the ship they had commandeered from under the very noses of their enemy. His battalion, comrades that had stuck with him through thick and thin were at their stations, some carefully instructing others how to operate the complex and alien controls of the vessel and many more taking a well earned rest as Thrang and his team plotted a clear course for the Rua’Maat. He smiled as two of them passed him by, bowing their heads in a gesture of respect and moved across the bridge to speak with Urm, his oldest and greatest friend.

    “Urm, my right hand,” he began, “what is our bearing..? How long have I slumbered..?” Urm replied, “A full night’s rest, Commander – and well earned I might say. We have long cleared the Harlian System and bear onward to the Rua’Maat. Thrang suspects we might disengage the vessel’s hyperdrive in a matter of hours. Everything else is on schedule, and perhaps before the day is through we might finally taste the wine of victory for which we have so longed, the Higher State permitting.

    “Excellent,” Gundar replied. “Hold steady, see to it that our wounded are administered to and if you haven’t already, send a team to try to find food, water.. whatever these vermin might be hoarding to replenish morale.” He clasped the other Threa’s shoulder before turning to leave the bridge himself. “As you will, Gundar,” Urm replied with a low bow, addressing his own subordinate to relay his commander’s instruction.

    “And General,” Gundar called over his shoulder as he started down the corridor. “Yes, Commander..?” came Urm’s reply.

    “From now on – have the men call me Alex.”

    Here is a Fourth Excerpt from Alluvion

    04. A Grand Decree

    “My brothers, my sisters and my dear friends,” He-Xur began, with his trademark flair for the dramatic, “people.. of Nevalı Çori. I bid you all a good morning, and trust that in the absence of your fearless leader your needs have been well met, and your bellies filled. I thank you,” he turned to face Skara, and with his right hand outstretched bowed his head slightly at the other man, “and I salute you, who would rise to his duty and preserve order and balance to our home in my absence.” Skara, still confused but honoured nonetheless at the mention returned a bow of his own head, offering fealty once more to He-Xur amidst cheers and applause from the rest of the village.

    “Though pleased as you are no doubt to see me,” he continued, “I am sure some of you question, ‘Why has our leader returned now, when two more Moons were promised first to pass’..?” He stepped down from the elevation and slowly moved closer before the crowd, whose excitement was clearly beginning to build. “Why has He-Xur (he would frequently refer to himself in third-person, an idiosyncrasy that had often perplexed Skara) come back to the Valley before his time..? I will answer you this, though it might surprise many of you to hear of what it is I have come to know from those learned and esteemed leaders of the capital,” Several villagers called out, “Tell us..!” and, “What of He-Tauhasa..?”

    “People of Nevalı Çori,” he wasted no time then in cutting straight to the chase, raising his voice beyond a reasonable volume and bellowing with a fierce and resounding roar: “war is upon us..!” His eyes bulged from his head and the veins on either side of his neck swelled as he delivered his proclamation. Immediately, audible gasps, moans and murmurs erupted from the crowd. Several small children began to cry only to be hushed by their mothers, and voices could be heard exclaiming, “War..? War with who..? Who would declare war on us..?” The people of the valley had not been faced with any sort of conflict for generations, enjoying a remarkably long and prosperous season and none among them could have expected this now.

    The chieftain went on: “I have met with our Divine King He-Tauhasa Ihreikas himself, and he has told me of the visions of the Seers of Çatalhöyük.” More murmurs, because if they were being honest, the townsfolk themselves were somewhat divided as to the true intent of those Seers, members of an order who claimed to be the divine interpreters of their Godhead. An order so many leagues to the west as to almost seem fantastic to those who had never made the journey.

    “The Seers,” he roared on, desperate to retain control of the crowd, “have witnessed, as we all have that the Cygnet among the stars bleeds and has bled for a full Moon. They have seen the signs and warn us that an invasion comes from the west..!” This sent the crowd into a frenzy. Every man and woman of the valley and indeed the entire population of the Southern lands had been raised from birth to hate on instinct those that dwelt to the west. A barbaric, incestuous foreign tribe of murderers and usurpers, they were told, who in their godless lust for war were always plotting the downfall of the Eastern tribes. He-Xur knew this well, understanding that it would be all too easy to incite his people to rally behind him, should a war with the West be his banner. He knew now that to bring his people completely on-side, he need only offer them glory and security as reward for such a risk as an ingress into enemy territory.

    “Brothers and sisters, the Seers have decreed that we of the East would be victorious against these marauders from beyond the lowly wastes,” he began to pace up and down in front of the crowd, their eyes following him as he went, “if we would strike first this serpent that threatens our kin, and cut off its head. The Gods favour us my friends, but more importantly, the Gods favour our honour, our power and our loyalty to those we call our own. Today I have returned to you to ask that you honour your king, and not just if it pleases you, for you honour your family, your kin and yourselves if you will follow me in this glorious campaign.” The crowd by this time had swollen to include almost every single man, woman and child in the village, their faces now reflecting soberly not only on what would be left behind should they follow He-Xur to the capital and to war, but what they might risk losing if they did not.

    “If we do not strike at the serpent, the serpent strikes at us. Now is the time for us to make haste to the capital to meet our king, and to defend our homes and our lands, before it is too late. The Seers have foreseen our victory – the blood of the West must be spilled, their forces broken, their women raped and their villages plundered. It is the only way. Who will join us in this glorious fight..? Who among you would follow me now, your blood lord into battle and would see their oldest enemies crushed into the earth, once and for all..?” His voice rose with every sentence, the intensity in his speech and in his eyes increasing with every syllable as he paced before the crowd, staring piercingly into the sea of faces as if weighing the value of their very souls. The people of Nevalı Çori were not soldiers, nor were they warriors. They were not marauders nor killers – they were hunters, they were fathers and they were simple men of the East. But they had made up their mind.

    With a thunderous roar that shook the ground, the villagers as one shouted for their lord, proclaiming their support for the coming war and giving praise to the Gods for the chance to honour them. It would otherwise have been an inspiring moment for Skara, to see his kin raise their fists and weapons high above their heads, clasping their brothers and sisters beside them were he not so recently made aware that the entire premise for the war for which they cheered had been a false one. He-Xur stood proud and defiant before them, returning their fealty with both arms outstretched and basked in the wave of support from his people. ‘His people’, he as all rulers through time had grown to believe this, never pausing to consider that there might be those among them less eager to follow their blood leader into the carnage that was promised. Skara turned and locked-eyes with the other as he tried unconvincingly to calm the throng about him, and he knew then that he must make a stand.

    He knew only too well the price of disobeying his king, and until this time had sworn only complete and utter loyalty to He-Xur. Skara had known him since they were both children, and as far back as he could remember he had been entranced by the showmanship and passion the line of Xur had commanded, and the hold that it had had over his kin. He had also seen many a great man fall, stripped of titles, wealth and most often eventually executed in that very same plaza for daring to defy the one the Gods had appointed. It was with no small measure of faith in those same Gods that he stepped forward, and addressed his lord and the people of his village. Sura’s face dropped as he did, not trusting that her husband knew exactly what it was he was doing, and knowing the consequences that might inevitably follow if he failed to present a sound and acceptable argument.

    “My friends,” he began, turning to He-Xur, “my lord.. I wished not yet to bring to you tidings from our most recent journey into the wilderness, at least not like this and I honour our blood-ruler for the wisdom he returns to us from the capital. However I feel I must speak now of those events that have transpired at that grassy plateau to the north which I have come to call Uru-Mah.” The crowd went silent as he stepped forward to speak, and now also seemed confused at the name assigned to what they knew to be a rather innocuous area of land, and hardly becoming of the label, the ‘Magnificent High’. He went on: “While we camped at the foothills to the south of the plateau, and as I stood watch over my brothers in the dead of the night I was visited by one of the order who call themselves the Watchers,” more murmurs and gasps from the women and children as he continued, “who bade me to speak with them at their council beneath the high-hills, in the city that is theirs. I have no doubts, as you might that these were indeed the Watchers of old, as he did reveal to me his face, and by his stature alone appeared as no man I have ever seen.”

    “The next morning, while hunting the lands surrounding the plateau, my brother and I did venture north over the rise and into the flatlands beyond, where I took council with the Watchers, who told to me of the true meaning of this signal in the sky.” He-Xur scoffed loudly, interrupting Skara in the middle of his speech and roaring above him, “The Watchers, he says..!” Turning to address the crowd, “No-one has seen their kind in an age, and nobody would dare break the forbidding that I and the rulers of the East have put upon that place beneath the hills, a land forsaken by the Gods themselves..!” He then spat at the earth and pointed aggressively at Skara, “What right have you, Skara Tau to venture into those lands forbidden by your forebears, where no other has strayed, and pray tell us what your Watchers,” he sneered as he rolled the name distastefully on his tongue, “those freaks of nature, if that is who they really were, have told you of those signs, truthfully read and deciphered by our own Seers..? Come now, entertain us..!” Some in the crowd laughed, others muttered uneasily amongst themselves, knowing that the next words to come out of Skara’s mouth might well seal his fate. Skara went on:

    “The council of the Watchers too have seen the sign, and in their wisdom have revealed a greater catastrophe that will take place than your supposed invasion from the west. The signs speak not of war, but of a great dragon which will fall from the sky, and burn the valley and indeed all of the Eastern lands to ashes. Those of the council have told me that in two weeks hence, if we are not safely within the high walls of their city, we will all be destroyed by this weapon which comes, and comes quickly.” More gasps, and the sound of several villagers booing could be heard from the crowd as he paused, but he went on. “Your war is a lie, the Seers have falsely interpreted the signs and would have our people spread far from safety where they would be destroyed by the dragon of seven tails. Listen to me brothers and sisters, my Lord you have been deceived..! We cannot march West, you must not listen to this madness..”

    He-Xur roared, “Enough..!” His face had turned bright red at the assertion that he, the highest among them had been taken for a fool by the learned men of the capital. He moved towards Skara and proceeded to make an example of the huntsman, who now felt as though his legs would turn to jelly:

    “To think that I should ever live to see such insolence, such wanton treason from you, Skara Tau. How dare you, a mere huntsman from the valley speak such heresy, such slander of the Seers, who are by divine decree the very voice of the Gods. And to defy me, your lord..! I will hear no more of your Watchers and their talk of dragons and other such nonsense – rescind those words that you have spoken, promising no further talk of those abominations to the north and by and only by the loyalty you have shown me until this day will I spare your life.”

    Skara went white, knowing too that there would be no turning back, no second chances if he continued by Yamnaya’s directive. He looked down at his children, cowering by their mother’s legs and then at Sura, who herself did not completely understand what her husband was saying. Her features dropped as she looked deep into his eyes and saw in them the path he would take. Skara glanced too at his brother, Andar who gritted his teeth from across the plaza as if to say “Idiot – stop this madness before you get yourself killed..!” Skara however had made up his mind, and shouted once more to the crowd and his lord:

    “I will not – the words of the Seers are false, the dragon arrives and the Watchers offer us salvation. I will not follow you, He-Xur into this war of your master’s making, and I would not condone the slaughter of our kinsman where such actions are unnecessary. I am sorry.”

    The crowd erupted then, incensed by the tone of defiance in his voice and responded by pointing toward, shouting at and taunting the other man. He-Xur arched his back and threw his muscular arms wide, declaring, “So be it..! Skara Tau, this day you have defied your Lord and will be punished accordingly.” He wasted no time as the crowd swelled around them, threatening to stone him there and then. Several rocks flew at the huntsman as his lord barked his order; “Take him and tie him in the Northeast quarter. We will march at sunset for the capital so as to meet our King two mornings hence, and will take the prisoner to his divine court for judgement..!” Skara gulped, for he knew just what this meant. Justice in the valley was and had always been dealt swiftly and with mercy, however from the capital he had heard a great many tales of the maiming and execution of traitors in the public arena, purely for the sport and entertainment of its citizens as spectators.

    Skara was stripped of any blades he carried, seized sharply by both arms by two of the more burly soldiers that had returned with He-Xur and as his children screamed and cried for their father, was led away to be imprisoned until the men of the village were prepared to march. Sura wept, and screamed clemency for Skara who could only look back at her for a brief moment with wide-eyes concerned and filled with fear before he was taken for his fate. She dropped to her knees in defeat, unable to believe how quickly her joy had turned to despair.

    All Skara could think as he was led away to face his fate was whether he would have enough time and indeed be given the the opportunity to convince his King of the folly of the Seers before it was too late. This, and of the small and mysterious vial provided to him by Yamnaya, which he had managed somehow to carefully keep concealed within his robes.

    Skara was led away and bundled roughly into a small wooden enclosure that had been erected at the rear of the Lord’s quarters to house prisoners awaiting punishment. No family or friends were permitted to see the captured man, and as the hours wore on before his transport west he began to reflect on the events that had brought him to this point. He cursed himself for not waiting until a more opportune moment to come clean about his visit to the plateau, and for allowing Sura and the children to see him captured and taken away before the rest of the village. He could only imagine the worry that his wife had felt in the hours since he was imprisoned, and hoped dearly that Andar had intervened to ensure that they too came to no harm.

    As the sun set through an opening in the rear of the enclosure, he heard footsteps outside the gate and a voice which called to him, “Come forth, Skara – it is time.” The latch was opened and he was removed from the chamber, and made to join a large group outside the Western edge of the village. Sura and the children were nowhere to be seen.

    Before the group departed, He-Xur approached him at the rear of the party under heavy guard, and spoke in confidence to him; “I would have never taken you for a fool, Skara Tau. Not until this day. What events have truly taken place that would bring you to such an act of suicide as slandering the words of your lord and king I do not know. But know this; where I have a softness within me for you and your family, the Seers of He-Tauhasa have only the divine law, and for your actions this day I do not expect you will be let-off lightly.”

    Skara raised his head to address the other man, but he had already left his side and taken up position at the head of the group. He-Xur surveyed the force of several hundred behind him – every able-bodied man and boy of age that could handle a weapon had been taken from the village and surrounds to join the soldiers of the capital, and only a handful of hunters including his brother Andar were allowed to remain with the women and children, promised to keep them from harm and hunger until their fathers and husbands would return victorious. He raised his right-arm to them palm lowered and hand outstretched in a gesture of solidarity and with a mighty yell, commanded, “People of the valley, we march west for Çatalhöyük..!”

    The group moved, slowly at first and then finding a rhythm in their step began the long and arduous journey to the capital. The road ahead was better-made and less treacherous than others surrounding the village, and the journey would take no more than two night’s passage. As they left sight of their homes and loved-ones, the group took up another song, to fire their resolve and prepare them for the dark days that were to come:

    “You cut them down in the fray of battle
    With your fierce wings, O God of War
    You tear and hack their throats like cattle
    Disguised, a dark and raging storm
    Growl and roar..! O hurricane
    And yell as a tempest boldly yells
    Thunder, rage, roar, and rain
    Expel thy winds from seven hells..!

    Your feet are anxious as they tread
    Your lyre it wails and moans
    We hear your loud dirge scream and cry
    O monster, sing that we may go home

    As thunder, you growl across the skies..!
    All trees and creatures bow before you..!

    You are blood rushing down a mountain
    Spirit of hate, greed and anger
    Dominator of heaven and earth
    Your smoke, it hides our black banner
    Riding-forth on a beast of war
    With indomitable commands
    You decide all fates to come
    And triumph over our enemy’s lands

    Who can explain why you go on so..
    Nergal keep guide of our axes, sling and bow”

    Skara recognised many items of weaponry borne by his kinsmen as they walked, battle-axes and barbed spears that had become little more than heirlooms displayed in the homes of his neighbours who had no use of such things until now. He shook his head and lamented the outcome of their participation in a full-frontal campaign against their enemies, who were by all accounts far better equipped and much less green on the battlefield. As the trip wore on into the night, he took note that the rolling hills of the valley lands had changed into a long and gradual descent, the landscape flattening out as they reached the lower ground which would eventually lead them to the tributaries and then the estuary which marked the entrance to the port-capital. They marched on through the night, finding their road with little difficulty and made great progress on the back of high-spirits and enthusiasm for what would be for many among them the first time they had visited the heart of their empire.

    They group camped once by a riverbed in the early hours of the following morning, allowing for several hours’ sleep before they carried-on with their journey. Skara was tied to a heavy stake that had been hammered into the earth at the outskirts of one of many small fires lit to warm their numbers and his hands freed from thick leather straps so that he might feed himself. The group had brought with them much of a store of cured meats, roots and vegetables gathered at the village before departing, and had sent several small groups forth as they marched to hunt ahead, so that they might also enjoy fresh meat. As they ate, some members of the group had taken pity on Skara, bringing him cuts of game to supplement the bland vegetables that he had been rationed, and of this group three had stayed with him in spite of command and their better judgement to enquire as to his well being. The three were in fact Gidri, Gizzal and a craftsman from the Eastern quarter who was called Bacchi, son of Stol. After they had eaten, he was the first to speak, asking Skara:

    “You do know what they’re planning for you, at the capital, don’t you..?” He began, “He’s not commanded that we bring you with us to see you slapped on the hand for defying his decree, you know. What manner of madness possessed you, anyway..? Have you no regard for your own life, or the livelihood of your family..?” He shook his head in resign. “We all love you like a brother, and you’ve always done the best by us in return. Why did you take opposition to He-Xur in an open forum..? Surely you knew that this would happen.”

    He spoke both as if he were chastising the other man, but also with a tone of genuine concern which softened Skara. He replied quietly, careful not to raise the attention of the soldiers closer by the fire, “Brothers, those words that I have spoken before are the truth. I have told no lies of the Watchers, and what they have shown to me calls for no delay in sharing it with you. Trust me when I say that the threat these signs have shown comes not from the West, but from the skies. You might well think me mad, but what I have done I have done for my family, and for the rest of you. Take heed that the words of the Seers are not entirely selfless, and that what they say may only be said for the benefit of their order.” He turned to the fire and gazed at the flames for a moment, before adding, “You will see when the time comes, and I pray to all the Gods that you come to your senses before all is lost.”

    The three looked at each other and shook their heads, before gently patting Skara on the shoulder and moving back to join the rest of the group. Skara stroked his thick black beard, and thought at length of the hopelessness of his situation before violently casting aside the food he had been given, the taste of which had turned bitter in his mouth.

    At mid-morning the group set off again, passing through the many green glades and grasslands now lush with the spring climate and by late afternoon began their final descent towards the lowlands. As the sun set on their second day of travel, the landscape had begun to change dramatically, and the dark silhouettes of isolated dwellings had begun to intermittently jut-out from the horizon either side of the road on which they travelled, signifying that they were at last leaving the wilderness between the two settlements and were nearing the more densely occupied lands surrounding Çatalhöyük. Above them, the Spring skies were blood-red and striking around the enormous descending solar disc and the heralds of He-Xur ordered the party to pause for a quick prayer to Anu, the head of their pantheon and of whom such skies were a blessing before they continued.

    The throng carried-on through the evening, electing to make one final camp beside a copse of oak trees just east of the city before arriving at first light. Again Skara’s bonds were loosened so that he might feed himself, however He-Xur’s soldiers kept a closer watch this time. Word had travelled quickly through the group that some of his fellow valley-men had confided in him the previous night, and their leader was determined that his treasonous ideas would not be spread amongst his friends and neighbours, with whom he knew the prisoner had a greater rapport than he himself. Skara ate his fill, famished from the long and arduous trek that the group had made swiftly to make time and prayed a silent prayer of his own to the pantheon that he might find wisdom among his accusers when brought to trial. If indeed a trial was to be arranged, for he knew that those elders of the city had not endured for so long by entertaining dissident voices.

    He slept warily through that night, ever watchful for those soldiers that might exact their own justice on the King’s behalf and at daybreak was yanked sharply to his feet by two of their number eager to press on and rejoin their brethren at the capital. The party marched a dozen men wide to the entrance of Çatalhöyük to meet the city watch, and Skara was awed by the great arch which surrounded the large wooden gates of the city. Massive oaken doors finished the road from the east, grand gates which stood almost twenty cubits tall and around the arch above it was carved the city’s grandiose claim, in great black symbols which read:

    “HERE LIES THE GLORIOUS SPLENDOUR THAT IS ÇATALHÖYÜK; THE VIBRANT BEATING HEART OF SILUR-MAH WHERE EVER REIGN ANU’S DIVINE BLOOD-REPRESENTATIVES ON EARTH.”

    After a quick exchange, the gates creaked open and the group were permitted entry into the city beyond. The capital itself was a vast collective of halls and dwellings built from an assortment of wood, stone and stretched animal skins, some carefully erected by artisans to the wishes of the more affluent and respected elders of the settlement and others resembling more the modest wooden huts of Nevalı Çori and the lesser villages to the east.

    The city was criss-crossed with made and unmade roads, and plumes of smoke rose from many corners and hearths and clouded the sky above in a thick haze which choked Skara and others among them not used to such an atmosphere. They had been warned of this, and told that they would get used to it but Skara could not believe that he would ever come to prefer the smog of city life above the crisp, clean air of the valley. As the small army moved through the streets in the direction of the center of the settlement and towards the largest of its halls where dwelt the ruling family of Çatalhöyük, a herald from amongst them sounded two long and sharp blasts from his horn, intended to catch the attention of the household of He-Tauhasa Ihreikas.

    The blasts prompted emissaries of the King to immediately march forth and confront the group, sharing a quick word with He-Xur before escorting them past a growing throng of onlookers, curious to see who had been welcomed into their city. Several dozen yards from the city square, the more distinguished among the group, including He-Xur, Skara and his minders were led into the massive Hall of Kings, and brought into a long space at the rear of the building. Skara was taken then before a large wooden throne draped with vibrant red cloth and decorated finery, where sat the king of the Southern lands, who was himself bare from the waist up save for several brightly coloured arm bands and other assorted adornments, and surrounded by handmaidens holding food, wine and other luxuries reserved for the ruler of their world. Skara was forced immediately to kneel in submission to the throne by a swift kick to the back of one knee, and He-Xur bowed his head in a gesture of respect before once more addressing his ruler for the first time since leaving the capital.