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.

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