Month: June 2016

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 its 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 reached 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.”

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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.”