12. The Great Dragon
“If I might have everybody’s attention for just a moment,” Skara began, nervously, “I’d like to ask for your audience.” He was noticeably anxious, but not just for the effects that recent events might have had on his kinsmen. As he stood before them, searching his mind for the right words, whatever they might be, he couldn’t shake the image of that awful vibrant light now in the northern sky, and the impending cataclysm that threatened soon to unfold. The deep and profound sense of fear it had brought with it now seemed to permeate its way into everything, to violate every thought and action he had taken since its arrival and left him feeling completely and utterly powerless, and unsure what possible comfort he could provide his people.
He nonetheless continued, “No doubt you too have all seen the passage of the Great Dragon from its arrival in the West this afternoon. Before this day, my warnings might have only sounded to many of you like little more than the half-insane ramblings of a petty doomsayer. I feel however that the time for denial has surely now passed, for who here can dismiss that sinister evil which so brightly now shines down upon us all..?” He gestured at the open space of the hall around them, “In this place, the Watchers have promised us sanctuary from the Dragon, and while many of our own have bravely fought and indeed given their lives to allow us safe passage to this city of stone, I would assure you that they did not do so in vain. In this place, we will find safety as promised, and in this city we will remain hidden from the beast and the coming of fire and water that those of its founding order have foretold will closely follow.”
“I feel no vindication in what is taking place outside these walls, no sense of personal gratification,” he went on, “I, like the rest of you, would truly like nothing more than to simply pass once more through those gates and return to Nevalı Çori and the lives we have all left behind. To go back to the homes and familiar experiences that we have shared and prepare once more for the summer. To hunt, to laugh and to spend our days in plenty as we have always done. But the reality is that those days are sadly now behind us. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, to be able to tell you what kind of world and future waits for us when this is all over.” He paused, and in a sudden moment of naked self-consciousness felt inexplicably small. He looked around the room, head tilted down and his brow furrowed, “I am but a hunter, a husband and father. A simple man, not meant for this kind of..” He trailed off, and then plucked his courage, “Whatever comes, we are in this together. Whatever story might be told of this day and those left to come, by our children and theirs, ours will be told as the proud and honourable people of the valley. That’s all that really matters. To bloody hell with the rest.”
He stopped speaking and abruptly sat down, clasping his hands and staring intently at the dancing shadow they cast upon the table by the flickering firelight from the hearth. There followed several long seconds of silence as his words were allowed to hang in the cool air of the room before a slow and building cheer arose from the villagers. Many took to their feet and began to praise Skara with an almost exhausted enthusiasm, and in moments, he lifted his gaze once more to see almost the entire hall now standing and clapping, and chanting his name. They had come this far together, and despite all losses it would seem they would remain united as one, through whatever was yet to come.
Skara smiled, and Sura gently took his right arm into her own. It seemed at that moment, the bonds of blood and community would prove stronger than any other force imaginable. Stronger than life, stronger than death.. stronger than any unknown threat from the heavens, or of the Earth. Their cheering continued for some time, eventually subsiding and when more of his kin rose to continue preparing the hall for the coming night, a second new and distant roar could be heard to fill the silence that they left. “What in Anu’s name..?” Skara thought to himself, as the unidentifiable noise gradually grew in intensity and with it, the awful glow that filled the windows to the city outside.
As one, the villagers inside the hall quickly rushed to the narrow windows along either side of the building just in time to witness the arrival of three enormous plumes of white-hot fire that tore across the darkening skies above them from the North with incredible velocity, singing with a single deafening voice akin to the awful chorus of a thousand fallen angels. Dusk immediately became day as the tails of comet fractures that had splintered off from the beast heralded the final arrival of Usumgala and tore the skies asunder as they roared due south and, seconds later, struck land on the far side of the plateau, beyond Uru-Mah. Women and children screamed as their impacts flashed brightly, silhouetting the dark hills and within moments, the sonic boom that closely followed shook the ground with such chaotic fury that the seismic rumble nearly wrested the building from its very foundations, and caused several heavy wooden supports in the ceiling to buckle and send dust and splinters raining down on them all.
Suddenly appearing as if from nowhere, the imposing figure of Yamnaya called out from the doorway with a commanding tone, verging on desperation, “It is time, quickly – everyone get up and follow me, now. Take nothing, get to your feet and by the Gods, make haste..!” No more needed to be said. Yamnaya swiftly turned and strode from the hall, heading straight for the bunker-like building far across the compound, and the score of Skara’s friends and family quickly poured through behind him. As they nervously made their way through the wide streets of the city in a half-stoop, the skies were once more lit up with a brilliant white flash as several more fractures from the great comet broke away from its core and surged across the heavens with the same loud and hideous wail, seeming much closer to them this time. The fierce light and accompanying heat caused many among them to cry out and the children to lose their footing as the earth shook, once, twice and again when the fiery missiles struck the ground in the East and to the south of the plateau. Were it not for the dense, dark forest that ringed the city, the flames of a great and terrible burning could have been seen growing on the horizon in all directions, as the raining storm of hellfire intensified across the entire length and breadth of the southern lands.
Far away, in the dark confines of He-Tauhasa’s great hall, the order of Seers that had stayed behind while their master made war cowered in a brief shared moment of complete and total revelation, before the great and sprawling metropolis of Çatalhöyük was lain to waste by a single giant fracture that pounded the city centre like the flaming fist of a vengeful god. In the fraction of a second, the filth and venom of their insidious cabal was extinguished from the face of the Earth as the once indomitable capital was swept away in a firestorm like a second Sodom. All across the sleeping world, millions faced a wrath of fiery judgement and were consumed by the maelstrom that in some places pulverised the very mountains to dust, and in others summoned forth vast torrents of liquid fire from the veins of the earth beneath them. Clouds of ash blotted-out the skies, and molten rock was vomitted from the tallest peaks and coursed down over the fertile neolithic lands below, as if rushing to meet the dark oceans that were already heaving to break the shores that once restrained them.
Skara raced to keep up with Yamnaya as he and his family were now literally running for their lives. Already a thickening pall of ash and vapour had begun to coalesce in the skies above them, eerily illuminating the near night between bright flashes that lit up their peripheral vision like fireworks. In moments the heavens became an undulating, writhing storm of deep red clouds that whirled and churned overhead with cyclonic fury, and a rising tempest that howled down through the lowlands and valleys below the plateau caused knots of dread to grow in the pit of their stomachs. In a panic, Sura lost her footing and was almost trampled by those villagers that closely followed before Skara managed to wrap his free arm around her waist and haul her back to her feet. He held Kirti tight with his left arm as the young girl buried her face in his chest, unable to bring herself to watch the sheer panic that was unfolding, and Harna now held onto his mother for dear life as she ran, steadying her lest she fall behind again.
Within seconds they had caught up with Yamnaya and arrived at the bunker, the Watcher already standing tall to the right of the low entryway and motioning everyone to make their way into the building as quickly as they could. “Don’t stop, for goodness sake,” he cried, struggling to make himself heard over the gale that whipped up about them all, “keep moving through. Don’t concern yourselves with those behind, you’ll only slow everyone else down..!” While he waited for the procession to enter, the Watcher raised his gaze toward the chaos overhead, and his eyes widened in unmistakeable fear as, through the blood-red clouds and haze above him, the great and horrible face of the beast could finally be seen in its entirety. Usumgala, the great comet, had finally arrived, and the flaming mass of its seven fearsome heads filled the sky with such awful brilliance that he could no longer gaze directly at it, as much for dread as awe.
Greater and more horrifying than any celestial visitor that had approached their world in aeons, the comet was quickly bearing down upon them, headed on an unstoppable trajectory across the night sky to the lands of the Clovis where, now exposed, it would finally exact its ultimate and devastating wrath. In less than a minute, all of the villagers had entered the bunker and had begun to make their way down the broad stone staircase beyond the entryway. Yamnaya stood for a brief moment more, both to marvel at the sheer power of the beast as it tore across the skies above and to also mouth a silent prayer for those of his order so far across the seas, before he too entered the building and heaved a mighty hewn cover stone from an alcove inside, effectively sealing them within what was now to become their sanctuary, or if his calculations proved untrue, perhaps their tomb.
Ahead of Yamnaya and in complete darkness, Skara and his family moved carefully down and along what somehow seemed to be a never-ending succession of cold stone stairs that snaked their way erratically into the earth in a sort of confused spiral. After soon realising the treacherousness of their passage, Sura instructed that they all stop momentarily while she fumbled about in the darkness for something deep inside a pocket in her dress. In frustration, several voices soon called out from the throng that had also been made to stop short behind them, “Why have we stopped moving..?” and, “Come on, we have to keep going..! What are you doing up there..?” The emotional state among the villagers threatened shortly to turn from panic to anger as the instinct for self-preservation tempted to provoke action, but a few moments later, the blackness of the stairwell was dispersed by a weak yellow light, the source of which was a small glass sphere that Sura had kept from Skara’s pouch, and that seemed to react exclusively to the absence of any distinguishable light. She had discovered its quality when packing on the morning of their departure from the village, and had not been able to bring herself to leave such a curious item behind. A decision she somehow knew she would not regret.
Now able to safely discern their footing, the procession moved on for what felt like hours, heading deeper and deeper into a cold and apparently endless catacomb that none of them could have guessed lay waiting beneath the modest stone bunker on the surface. From time to time, the walls of the tunnel shook, sometimes imperceptibly and occasionally with such violence that the group would stop and crouch low as impacts from the maelstrom on the ground above continued overhead. Several times, as dark soil was shaken from the ceiling and rained down on them, Skara caught himself wondering if this was ‘finally it’. He knew that everything they had seen so far was merely a preview of what was coming, that eventually the beast would make land, and who knew what would happen then..? In his mind and from what he had seen, he still had every reason to fear that their complete and utter annihilation remained a very real possibility. Each time he tried to shake the feeling as quickly as it came and continued along the way, as they all did, until eventually they reached the bottom of their descent and passed through a tall and narrow doorway into what was the living, breathing heart of the Watchers’ masterplan.
Skara was the first to leave the cold corridor and enter with trepidation what he was astonished to discover was an absolutely massive natural underground cavern that had been shaped, seemingly by hand, but with an incredible artistry from the very bedrock of the plateau itself. It must have been equal to, or at the very least comparable in area to the stone city on the surface, but with a vast ceiling that appeared to be an almost flawless dome of dark rock that extended with near perfect circular geometry from the farthest walls to a point so far overhead that the now brighter light from the orb in Sura’s hand could not even reach it. More of the villagers followed them in, and their gasps were clearly audible as everyone could do little more than attempt to wrap their minds around where they now were, mouths agape and in total wonder. For all of the wondrous and inexplicable things that they had seen in the city above them, it all somehow paled into insignificance when compared to the strange subterranean world in which they now found themselves.
The floor of the cavern was criss-crossed with wide, crudely cobbled roads and row upon row of small, low set dwellings, somewhat similar to the squat stone buildings on the surface, and from somewhere far across the dark expanse the sound of what must have been a broad and powerful underground stream could just be heard rushing away in the distance. Despite the absence of natural light, lush fields of a weird, deep-green and deliberately cultivated moss seemed to carpet the outer ring of the cave, but what was most confusing was an enormous pyramid of worked earth that immediately drew their attention, rising up in the centre of the cave to a height Skara estimated to be some sixty or seventy feet.
Formed with almost perfect symmetry, the steep bank of pressed earth was crowned with the most bizarre object.. Skara could not even compare the intricate and complicated device that sat atop it to anything he had ever seen in his life. Roughly the size of a small house, but cylindrical in shape and adorned with a myriad of strange parts and pieces, the machine that dominated the underground landscape rose out of the great mound at its heart, and appeared to be tethered to the exact centre of the roof of the cavern by a thin and perfect rod of an unidentifiable metal that shot dead straight from the top of it in a flawlessly straight line. Neither Skara nor his kin had ever seen anything remotely like it, and could do little more than guess at what its purpose and function might be.
Arriving shortly after the last of the villagers had entered, Yamnaya soon joined them in the underground city and as before, immediately moved to heave a second perfectly hewn cover stone from its resting place and set it in the doorway, barring the way back. Still breathing heavily from the effort, he then turned to address them all; “Welcome,” he began with a marked tone of self-satisfaction, “to the salvation of your race. This city, this underground world beneath the world. My people have worked painstakingly for an age to manufacture and create everything that you see around you now, everything that would see your kind survive that which has come to mean the destruction of all you knew of the surface world. Each consideration and every detail; water and warmth, food, light and shelter. In this place, my new friends, you will survive. While the world above burns, and the cities and empires of those societies left behind are washed away and the slate of the Earth cleansed, humankind will survive, here. Humankind must survive. Please,” he beckoned deeper into the cavern with an outstretched arm, “by all means, go forth and explore. Make yourselves at home. This is all for you, and for what may prove to be quite some time, it will be the only home you have.”
At that, most of the villagers moved away from the cavern entrance, still with dumbfounded expressions on their faces, and fanned out into the cave, many unable or still too shellshocked from their ordeal to fully consider what Yamnaya’s words implied. Skara however had mulled on Yamnaya’s short speech, and after a minute felt obliged to ask: “My friend, words surely cannot begin to describe this place. I have a million and one questions, as you no doubt can understand, and while this of course comes from a place of the deepest and most un-repayable gratitude, I need to ask; you made mention of warmth, and light. Yet without the meagre light in my wife’s possession, I see nothing but the stark and impossible blackness one might expect, so deep in the heart of the hills. Of what light and warmth do you speak..?”
Skara of course was right. So deep beneath the surface and beyond the reach of sunlight, the warmth of the winds and the seasons, they had scarce little hope of maintaining any sort of food supply for any reasonable length of time. Indeed, trapped in such a place for weeks, months or even years, the creeping and claustrophobic insanity of their new home would slowly eat away at them in the near darkness, and Skara could only imagine what kind of beasts his kinsmen, or any men for that matter, might become when faced with such a dark and oppressive existence. He continued, “Though I suspect those fields are somehow meant for us, and the stream I can hear no doubt played a part in your choosing this place, how are we supposed to maintain it, or even order, when we are unable to see no more than twenty paces in any given direction..?”
Now, a wry and knowing smile crept across Yamnaya’s face as it seemed the time had finally come to reveal his last and greatest surprise to the valley man. The true core of the Watchers’ plan, the central, pivotal feature of their city below the surface, and something that had grown to become, to him, a source of great pride. He had been the driving force not only in its design, but through his own ingenuity he remained one of only two of his order capable of commanding its power, and controlling its effect. Though so much of their knowledge had been lost, Yamnaya had devoted his life to rediscovering, often through the most painful processes of trial and error, what secrets were required in completing their vision. “Skara, on this occasion and as is often the case, I fear further words can only diminish. Come, let me show you.” As everyone continued to disperse in all directions, Yamnaya politely took the still-glowing orb from Sura’s hand and beckoned Skara and his family to follow. He led them deeper into the vast cavern towards the central pyramid, where they found and ascended a rough staircase that had been fashioned out of its far side, and made their way toward the curious device resting at the top.
When they had almost reached their destination, Yamnaya motioned for the family to remain a short distance away as he moved to a large, ornate chrome panel at its base and set about fumbling with a series of weird cranks, knobs and levers, prodding some and twisting others in a long sequence that baffled the hunter and his wife who could only trade curious glances while the Watcher worked. All of a sudden, a loud and familiar whirring sound started up from within the heart of the strange machine, and as it grew in volume all of the villagers across the cavern suddenly stopped what they were doing and turned to watch what was happening. Yamnaya rose once more to his full height and walked over to a large and opaque semi-sphere, roughly a foot in circumference that protruded from what must have been the front of the device, and spoke. “It is heat you seek is it, valley man..? And light, by which to see..?” Skara’s brow remained furrowed in confusion, and he could only stammer a mono-syllabic, “Y-yes..?”
“Then by all means,” the watcher smiled, “let there be light..!”
Yamnaya then pressed the centre of the large sphere with the open palm of his right hand, and everyone in the cavern including Skara immediately dropped to their knees in shock as a broad and monumental pillar of dazzling white light exploded with a deafening boom from the roof of the machine and coursed along the length of its tether like a bolt of super-charged electricity, finding its earth in the centre of the domed ceiling overhead. The sound of the machine’s activation reverberated loudly around the cavern, and instantly the entire underground city was bathed in a brilliant light, almost as though the entire town and its ecosystem were now spread out beneath a warm and vibrant summer sky. Yamnaya laughed a booming and contagious laugh, as if finally celebrating a long-sought victory. Skara was incredulous, and could not believe his eyes..! Harna let out a loud and enthusiastic cry, and little Kirti giggled with glee as every single one of the villagers remained motionless and merely looked toward it with sheer and total wonder. “Now, do you see..?” boomed Yamnaya, “Where my forebears brought about their own end with their pride, and the reckless use of their knowledge, we have given you a second chance. The race of men will endure, my young friend. The species known as man will live on for many generations to come, as both children of and the continuing stewards to the Earth. It must.”
“Where the knowledge of our predecessors was once used in an ill-intentioned attempt to pervert the laws of the natural world for their own selfish wants, the last of my kind have succeeded in the consolidation of a power thats sole purpose is to preserve life, and to resist those outside forces that would threaten to consume it.” Yamnaya turned then to address not only his friend but each and every man, woman and child that had still believed enough in his kind to follow him into the bowels of the Earth, and continued, “This power we have called The Defender, for that is its purpose. In a new world, now so far from the reach of any gods or devils, in the darkest of hours this gift will provide to us light, warmth and safety from everything that Usumgala would bring down upon us. For so long as the lands above remain in turmoil so too we will be allowed to survive; and when the time comes that you might return once more to the surface, so another chance in this world will be your gift. And perhaps too in turn, for us, a second chance at the next.”
Skara was awestruck, and rose gingerly to his feet. In his wildest imagination he could never have believed such a machine, so great and incredible a power as to turn night into day could possibly exist, let alone be controlled by any mortal man, or even the Watchers. The radiance of the fantastic pillar of light seemed to penetrate to the very core of his being, warming his bones and building his spirits and trust in the future once again. He approached Yamnaya, and extended his right hand which the still smiling Watcher took in kind. “Never have I truly doubted you, since we first met.” He began, “But shamed as I am to say it, I fear I have underestimated you. This, what you have done here is beyond words, and I and my people are beyond gratitude and forever in debt to you and your kind. Thank you, friend. By my gods and yours, we will repay you.”
At that, Yamnaya’s smile left his face as quickly as it came, and was once again replaced with his usual stern sobriety, and he replied, “Skara, you’ve done more for your own people than I ever could have, and as always you sell yourself short. In truth, I feel that it is I that has underestimated you.” He placed a lithe hand on Skara’s shoulder, and continued, “This place that we have created for you, it’s a second chance. You owe me nothing but the promise that you will continue to shepherd your people, to watch over them. And in turn, ensure that they continue to fight, to live.. to survive. Do that, and you can consider all debts repaid.” Skara nodded in reply, feeling that the ten-ton weight of everything that he had been made to endure over his adventure was suddenly lifted, and managed a brief and genuine smile before turning back to Sura and his family.
Now bathed wholly in the calming warmth and light of The Defender, he held them close.
Nestled tightly in the grip of theirs, they held him back.
Far across the vast and violent seas, many leagues south of the fertile lands of the Clovis, those that remained of Yamnaya’s order had themselves worked fervently to complete their secondary sanctuary in the high mountains which bordered the Western coast. Just as the monstrous fury of the great comet finally penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere and struck the planet somewhere far in the north of the continent, the second Defender was activated far below the stone city of Caral Supe, where those of the Americas now too found sanctuary, and the contingency was realised.
“Then the fifth angel sounded: And I saw a star fallen from heaven to the earth. To him was given the key to the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace. So the sun and the air were darkened.” – Revelation 9:1-2
Ancient stone carvings at Gobekli Tepe or ‘Potbelly Hill’ in Anatolia tell of a great comet that is theorised to have struck the Earth somewhere around 11,000BC. A devastating and cataclysmic event which, it has been proposed, may have been responsible for wiping out much of the preexisting megafauna in many parts of the world, reshaping coastlines and that may have played a key role in putting an end to the age old hunter-gather system, paving the way for the rise of agriculture and civilisation as we now know it.
Experts have analysed these mysterious symbols carved onto the enormous stone pillars at Gobekli Tepe in modern-day southern Turkey, to find out if they could be linked to constellations and have drawn conclusions that the event’s origins may lie somewhere in the Cygnus system, some six thousand light years from us. These markings suggest that a swarm of comet fragments hit the Earth at approximately the same time that a mini-ice age is said to have begun, subsequently changing the entire course of human history and giving rise to a long and difficult period of adjustment for those new and, until that time, apparently flourishing and diverse human communities.
Scientists have speculated for decades that such a comet could be behind the sudden fall in temperature during an ensuing period known as the Younger Dryas. Recently the theory appeared to have been debunked by new dating of meteor craters in North America, where the comet is thought to have struck. However, when engineers studied animal carvings made on a pillar, known as the Vulture Stone, at Gobekli Tepe they were surprised to discover that the creatures might actually be astronomical symbols which represented constellations, and the comet.
The idea has already been explored in a number of scientific and speculative works of non-fiction over recent years, as has the theory that those closest cousins to modern man, the Neanderthals, might have dwelt alongside mankind in much more recent history than initially believed, and that their species and its apparently complex societies may still offer more secrets that are yet to be discovered. Alluvion is an imagining of the lives and struggles of a small community that might have existed during this time, and the consequences that such an event might have had not only on the world they knew, but of the challenges it may have brought, and their fortitude and the endurance of the human spirit as they adapted to it.
We must be reminded often that our continued success as stewards of this green and vibrant world still only hangs by a thread, and although we have, at least in recent history, enjoyed a relatively safe and stable environment, everything that we know, love and hold dear might at any moment be threatened again by a similar event. And we must learn to love and appreciate this fragile world accordingly, and with absolute sincerely, for so long as we are lucky to be here.
11. Wrath of Usumgala
Lapsing in and out of a heavy daze as he lay cradled in Sura’s arms, Skara’s thoughts began to drift groggily back to his own childhood, and those formative years spent in the same valley he still called home. Half awake and yet still firmly immersed in dream, in his mind he ran gleefully through the green fields surrounding Nevalı Çori, untouched and unreachable by whatever dark futures might yet befall him. With near complete lucidity he could feel the warmth of the summer sunlight streaming across his face, and the crisp mountain wind blowing through his hair as he laughed and played with his half-brother through the sea of tall grasses that surrounded his village. In those brief minutes that seemed to last a lifetime, Skara felt truly content. For the first time in what felt like forever, he believed himself safe from harm in a place where he belonged. He was home.
Yamnaya could sense the spirit of the valley man slipping away ever further, and knew that what little time he had left could not be wasted bickering with the veritable pig of a human being that stood and challenged him now. He also possessed the perceptive intuition to realise that those men, battered and bloody, that comprised what remained of He-Tauhasa’s army were now too so utterly broken and exhausted, and left morally dejected by the conflict with their kin, that few had any interest whatsoever in further orders calling for yet more struggle and bloodshed. For the most part, everyone that still remained on the hillside wanted nothing more than just to turn around and go home, and to put the horrible events of that day behind them. This, Yamnaya decided, would play in his favour for what he was going to do next.
The two adversaries, one broad and squat and the other lithe and tall, stood opposite one another for several seconds, perhaps up to a full minute, sizing each other up and simply staring coldly into their challenger’s eyes, as if daring them to make the first move. Before anybody could react, and without the slightest twitch or warning, Yamnaya suddenly threw back his right shoulder, a gnarled staff firmly gripped in the same hand and swung the heavy, knotted end of the weapon swiftly and powerfully upside the left hemisphere of He-Tauhasa’s head, knocking the broader man instantly out cold and sending him crashing to the ground with a thud. For good measure, he then brought his staff back around and thrust the rear end sharply into the King’s ribs, if for nothing else than to ensure that his first strike was true, and withdrew his weapon. The entire motion was executed in a fraction of a second, Yamnaya returning so quickly to the same stoic state as before that were it not for his wandering blue eyes that darted about, searching the throng around him for signs of reprisal, one might have been forgiven for believing they had imagined the act to have taken place at all.
After the moment’s initial shock had passed, the remainder of the capital army began to murmur among themselves as it suddenly dawned on them that they were now effectively leaderless. Two of their number stepped gingerly forward, eyes firmly fixed on Yamnaya for fear of a further show of magic or violence, as they tiptoed across and stooped to roll their fallen commander onto his back and check for signs of life. Once they managed to turn him over, He-Tauhasa, completely unconscious, broke into a loud and reverberating snore like the heavy sawing of wood. Clearly the man was still alive, but in no state to be of any use to anyone for quite some time. Debate between his men died down quickly then, and everyone merely remained where they were and looked to Yamnaya, as if it were somehow up to the Watcher to deliver their next set of instructions. Yamnaya was in equal measure ambivalent as to what should become of them, shifting uncomfortably in their gaze, and so instead turned and directed his attention back to Skara, now white as a sheet and muttering all manner of delusions as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
As Sura wept softly and stroked her lover’s forehead, Yamnaya knelt beside the young family and gently took her hand, beckoning she allow him to assess her husband’s condition. “It’s alright, girl,” he offered in as quiet a tone as he could manage, all too aware that this was the first time she had ever been directly addressed by one of his order, “though there is little time, I fear, I may still be able to help him. Come, let me carry him. At my home atop the plateau, I will do what I can.” Sura sniffed and wiped her doe eyes with the sleeve of her other arm, and merely nodded her thanks to the Watcher. In her state, she was well and truly beyond all capacity for fear and wonder, and numbly rose to follow as Yamnaya held a feverish Skara close and rose to depart the battlefield.
The Watcher and Skara, Sura, Harna and Kirti moved slowly through the throng of villagers still occupying the upper slope of the hill, and as it became clear that the battle was now well and truly over, many rushed down to where the fighting had taken place and He-Tauhasa’s soldiers still stood milling about with uncertainty to search for their loved ones. For most, it was a search which ended in bitter sorrow, as He-Tauhasa’s army had ultimately proved efficient in overwhelming their opponents to a man and slaughtering close to nine-tenths of their number. Heaps of bloodied, mangled bodies lay bleak and silent where they had fallen in skirmish, two and three high in places, and the low, muted groans of the injured and dying only seemed to add to the morbidity of the scene.
Those that had managed to survive had gathered higher up the field of battle, and now watched reluctantly as the women and children of the village picked through the mud and remains for signs of anything they might have recognised. A second rising wail began then to slowly fill the air as wives discovered husbands and mothers came across the broken, twisted bodies of their sons, taken by the storm. Many could not bear to watch the grieving, and much of the remnants of the capital army turned instead to count their own losses, their bodies now stacked at the lower end of the battlefield and make arrangements to leave as soon as practical. They were exhausted, and without their king to spur them on had lost all interest in recapturing their quarry. “To hell with the valley man,” they thought – they were done with bloodshed.
His face a mask of stony concern, Yamnaya slowly strode over the lip of the plateau and led Skara’s family across its length toward the waiting compound. Despite their grief, once the dark and looming forms of the halls and towers of the Watchers’ settlement took shape and rose out of the forest wall ahead, all voices were soon hushed and their focus lost to the eerie silence of the landscape. Just as Skara had never before seen such architecture, Sura too was in awe of the precise and monumental stonework that seemed almost to sprout up out of the dark soil itself, and found a million questions to suddenly boil up inside her. “How is all of this possible..? For how long has this place lay hidden, and what sort of magic and mastery must be needed to fashion such things from the very face of the mountains beyond..?” She wanted to ask. Instead she merely followed the Watcher in silence, guiding her two young children diligently through the entryway and into the compound where, she prayed, Yamnaya might somehow be able to save him.
As they snaked their way into the centre of the settlement and finally reached the open space of the clearing, the silence occupying the air was suddenly broken by the flutter of what must have been ten thousand sets of small wings as, completely without warning, every single bird and insect that dwelt upon the plateau suddenly rose from its perch and took flight in a great, dark cloud. Kirti squealed in fright as the sudden whirlwind of countless black shadows formed a giant vortex around them, and Sura pulled her and Harna close, shielding their eyes until, eventually, the threat had passed. Within moments the great black cloud erupted skyward and shifted due east with deliberate haste, and as quickly as it started, the forest was once again deathly still. “It has begun, then,” Yamnaya muttered lowly, turning his gaze toward the clearing above their heads. “Come, we must move quickly. Follow me into the great hall, I must administer to his wounds while there is still time.” Sura touched the faces of her children softly in reassurance, motioning they follow the Watcher and as they approached the entrance to the great hall, turned herself to glance up at the sky.
In a moment she would never forget, so long as she lived, Sura’s blood froze to ice as she finally noticed the awful point of fire that had appeared in the western sky like a baleful second sun, threatening to unleash a new and unspeakable doom upon all who lived below. The four hurried out of the clearing and into the cold stone interior of the hall, where Yamnaya gently lay Skara’s lifeless body on the great slab which served as a table and ushered the other three to a place across the room. He quickly set about selecting a number of small vials and ingredients from the shelves that lined the walls and stripped Skara of his cloak and effects. The wounds that had been inflicted upon his body were so cruel and severe that Sura was compelled to turn to her children; “Go and wait in the back room, Harna,” she addressed her eldest, “make sure that she does not leave your sight. Everything will be fine, but you mustn’t see this. It is not for young eyes, now go.” Yamnaya frowned as he inspected the valley man, the splintered shafts of several broken arrows still protruding from his flesh, and only when he could finally recognise a pulse and the shallowest of breaths that still animated his body, decided to begin the ritual.
As he carefully soaked a piece of grey cloth with a strange mixture from several dark vials and applied it to Skara’s forehead, he offered Sura some small explanation of what he intended to do, “I will not lie to you now,” he began, “your husband’s wounds are indeed grave. So close is he to death in fact that even I cannot promise that what is about to take place here will be successful. The Ritual of Staying is something that no-one other than those of my order have ever been able to endure. It is the process by which we have been afforded the power to cheat what mortality would take from us before our want, and is an act tailored to a more ancient blood. Blood that you must realise does not flow through his veins.” Sura struggled to understand and to keep herself composed, and only replied, “Do what you can.. do what you must – please. Whatever the price, I cannot have him who I love returned to me after such a time only to see him taken away from me again. It would be too much to bear.” Yamnaya paused and nodded slowly. He could only try, and prayed his own gods would grant exception in light of the circumstance.
Standing at the head of the great table, Yamnaya placed his two lithe hands on either side of Skara’s face and closed his eyes, his head tilted towards the ceiling. While the Watchers had succeeded in preserving much of the alchemy and chemistry that had survived from the age of their former glory, a sacred few abilities that were reserved only for their order, abilities that might as well be deemed magic to those that simply did not possess the power to comprehend their nature, had until that moment never been witnessed outside of their own circle.
What then followed surely fit into that category. As Yamnaya began to mouth a low series of strange, alien syllables, the palest violet light began to wash through his hands and into the body of Sura’s husband, first charging through the Watcher’s fingertips and enveloping Skara’s face, chest and then his entire body. Sura’s jaw dropped and she was forced immediately to take several steps back. She could not believe what she was witnessing, and could only stand wide-eyed as a second, fiercer shade of the same pale light erupted from the half dozen gaping wounds that riddled her husband’s chest and abdomen and filled the cavernous chamber of the hall with a brilliance that could only be matched by the direct light of the midday sun.
Completely dazzled, but unable to bring herself to look away, she watched on in awe as the arrowheads lodged in his body appeared to disintegrate, and the fierce glow from those wounds gradually abate as if the injuries themselves were doorways into her husband’s soul that the Watcher was somehow closing from within. The two remained motionless through it all, however to Sura it seemed as if the very foundations of the great stone hall were now shaking violently in response to the ritual. At its peak, she was forced to retreat to the far wall and hold on for dear life, as it felt like an earthquake was taking place at the ground beneath her feet that threatened to open up and swallow them all in any given moment. Eventually, Yamnaya’s voice, which seemed to have matched the intensity of the aura, began to diminish and so too the pale and mysterious fire that had engulfed them both gradually subsided, withdrawing first from Skara’s feet, legs, torso and chest and eventually returning to Yamnaya’s long fingers where it finally disappeared completely.
It took her a full minute before she finally regained the sensation of stability and was able to believe once again that the great hall was not in fact being torn asunder. Yanmaya was breathing heavily as he finally withdrew his hands from Skara and placed them carefully down on either side of the stone slab, as if to steady himself. The ritual had always been taxing, he knew this after so many countless times that it had needed to be performed, however applying its methods to a human was both mentally and physically draining. Yamnaya dropped to his knees, suddenly unable to support himself under his own power and Sura, forgetting her wariness, rushed across the room to help him once more to his feet. “You’re.. you’re hurt,” she seemed almost unable to believe, “here, please – sit. Let me get you some water.” The Watcher groaned and slumped into a seat at the end of the table as she hurriedly left to draw a pitcher from a tall oak barrel in the corner of the room.
Sura returned quickly and helped the container to his lips, and as he raised his head to take a drink she gasped audibly as she was finally able to see his face in the wan light of the room. Somehow, he had appeared to age a lifetime in only those few moments. Gaunt as he ever was, Sura saw that his pale skin was now the colour of old parchment, and only barely clinging to his sunken cheeks and his thick hair in places seemed to have fallen away completely from his crown. The brightness in his eyes had dimmed, and where before his frame appeared as though cast from wrought iron, he now seemed weak and unable to sit up straight. Whatever magic the watcher had been able to command had somehow seemed in turn to rob him of his own years, and Sura could not help but weep as the tall figure now bent quietly and tried desperately to control his breathing. He was in pain, but despite appearances knew in his own mind that he would soon recover.
Caught up in her sudden concern for the Watcher, Sura had managed to briefly forget about Skara, still lying prone upon the slab. Yamnaya motioned for her to leave him be for a moment while he rested, and as she rose she was startled by a low moaning reverberating from elsewhere in the hall. She turned back to the table in time to see Skara slowly turning over where he lay, amazingly now awake once more and attempting to roll up onto one elbow and speak. “Skara..!” She cried instinctively, rushing over to embrace him, “Skara, my love, don’t you move. Please, stay still. Let me look at you,” She was beside herself, and despite her commands, her loud cry prompted Harna and Kirti to rush from the far room behind the hall where they had cowered throughout the ritual with their hands covering their ears. Now beyond reprimand, they too ran to be at their father’s side.
They three carefully laid their hands upon him and began flooding the poor man with a thousand words of encouragement and relief as he finally succeeded in opening his eyes. Skara struggled at first to adjust from the pitch darkness of near-death, however he soon turned to Sura and simply said, “Sura, my heart. Where have you been..?” She gushed and smiled, and could not resist the impulse to hold his face and kiss him a dozen times before he turned painfully away to cough and clear his throat. After a brief moment of joy, the realisation quickly dawned on him that he had only minutes ago been at the very gates of death. He groaned once more and rose to a sitting position, whereupon he gasped and worriedly reached across his body to feel for what he knew must be many deep and horrible wounds. He was immediately shocked to feel not a single scratch where only before his chest had been pierced by arrows and his stomach slashed in the fray upon the hillside where he had fallen. “How..?” he asked of Sura, “I.. I was surely done for, my wounding was mortal. How is this possible..?”
As if in reply, Yamnaya grunted abruptly from where he sat, and dropped his empty pitcher to the table with a loud thud. Skara turned to his friend, and knew at once that whatever miracle had brought him back from the void, it was the Watcher’s doing. “Yamnaya,” he started, the memory of the other’s return at the close of the day’s battle finally rushing back to him, “I knew you would come. I knew you would not see me fail where you might have known I would.” He then too saw the tortured look of pain that still racked his features, and remarked, “My friend, and that you are and will always be. You’ve not the same look about you as when we first met. Whatever you have done for me, you had no obligation to do, thankful as I am. Please tell me you will be well, I could not see this ordeal through without your guidance.” Met with silence, he turned to Sura with a worried look.
Yamnaya merely raised his gaze, almost imperceptibly, and though it still caused him great pain to speak, replied, “If you think for a moment, Skara Tau, that I would see you through this trial and not be present at the end to claim my due credit, then you’re more a fool than I first thought.” He coughed again as Skara smiled, and then continued, “We’ve invested too much in this madness to see it all fall apart so close to its finish. It’s not over until it is over. And by the gods I promise you,” he said with uncharacteristic warmth, “it’s nearly over.” Harna and Kirti then leapt onto the table top and embraced their father as Sura once more attended to Yamnaya, who eventually regained his stoic composure and joined them in a brief celebration of life, love and a what was a deservedly happy outcome to a very close call.
Once they had recovered enough and Skara was once again able to chance his feet, the five decided to take stock of their situation; they had made it to the compound as planned, however were thus far alone and as Sura was quick to fill him in, the dragon in the skies had finally chosen to reveal itself. By his reckoning, Yamnaya indicated that only hours remained before all hope of any left behind also making their way to sanctuary was lost. With a brief explanation, he left the four and made his way out of the hall and to the curious low bunker across the settlement where, he made clear to indicate, “further work must be done, work that no human should be present to interfere with.” The family of four were free then to leave the hall and wander about the city so long as no unsanctioned meddling was allowed to take place. Skara suggested he and his family head to a large mound at the western edge of the city whereupon they could sit and rest, and get a clear view of the lands surrounding the plateau.
As soon as they re-entered the city center, all eyes were immediately drawn to the fierce ball of white fire that had now set in the north-western sky. Sura’s eyes widened as she realised that it had almost doubled in size since they had first arrived, and was now so brilliant a light that wherever they went, a second lesser shadow was cast at their feet in competition with the afternoon sun. Skara could not shake a deep feeling of unease as he stood and struggled to gaze directly at it, and he wondered not only what sort of horror such a sight might herald, but what the watchers and their magics could possibly do to resist it. Despite his faith in their promise and as much as he tried to hide it, he was afraid for his family, for himself, and for those of his kin that must have at that moment been more wary than ever of him and his leadership. The four slowly made their way to the top of the hill and there they merely sat close and waited, saying very little and holding only onto both each other and whatever scarce hope still remained in their hearts. Skara watched intently across the plateau, praying silently to see any signs of those left behind.
All the while the family reconciled Yamnaya was nowhere to be seen, and as the afternoon dared to become the evening, only the strange, faint sound of hammering and an occasional dull roar like the stoking of a great fire could be heard floating on the breeze. After almost an hour had passed, and the fierce orb of light in the darkening sky had once more doubled in size, Skara could have sworn he heard the sound of distant voices from somewhere far across the plateau. He let go of Sura’s hand and rose to his feet so as to get a clear view, and Sura instinctively did the same. “Sura, I think it’s them, I think they’ve come..!” He exclaimed hopefully. Sure enough, a long procession of slow-moving figures could soon be seen departing the growing shadows at the far side of the plateau, making their way in a staggered line toward the walls of Uru-Mah. Sura gently took Kirti in her arms, the child understandably exhausted and now fast asleep, and Skara beckoned Harna join them in descending from the mound to meet the villagers at the gate.
The family were only too aware of the effect that the tragic events of that afternoon would have had on the women, children and whatever men survived, and so watched with trepidation as the wave of slow moving wanderers approached the western entrance. Skara squinted as the first of their number drew near, hoping against hope that Andar was still well and among them. With all the emotion of his rescue, his miraculous revival and the reunion with his wife and children, it had slipped his mind completely to inquire as to the well-being of those that had survived the slaughter at the hand of the King, and nervously wondered what manner of greeting he would be afforded, knowing that for many it might seem appropriate to hold him personally accountable. A handful of older women were the first to leave the silent wood and stop short when they saw the family, and a single stoic hunter from the valley stood at their head. Somewhat to Skara’s relief, it was indeed Andar that had led his people to the end of their journey, and without hesitating his half-brother almost ran to him when he realised who it was that greeted them.
Upon reaching him, Andar stepped forward and gripped the nape of his brother’s neck with a strong right hand and stared at him with a deep frown, only remarking; “Gods and devils, brother, is that really you..?” Skara had no reply, save for a heaviness in his heart as he noticed the tails of half a dozen dark arrows that still protruded from Andar’s back and shoulders. He was breathing heavily, and despite being the size he was and his best efforts to conceal it, was clearly in a serious state. “Andar,” he replied, his eyes welling up, “my brother, yes – it’s me. I’m okay, Yamnaya.” he trailed off, dismissing his own story. “Look at the state of you. Oh, my brother.. I’m so very, deeply sorry. How in the world can you ever forgive me..?” Andar too was almost overcome with emotion as Skara placed a hand on his shoulder in kind, and did his best to appear strong. “Don’t you worry about me, Skara. It’ll take more than a few little darts to bring down a bull.” He motioned over his shoulder to yet more villagers that were now arriving, and added, “We’ve a score of sick and injured, and they’ll have need of fire and a place to rest and recover. If you’ve any beer or wine in this.. whatever a place this is you’ve led us,” he gestured through the city’s entrance, “I’ll share a drink as I’m sure we both well deserve it. Just you show us the way.”
No sooner had Andar delivered his request, than three more dark shadows broke away from the trees and ran toward them, crying out; “Skara..! Oh Skara, thank the gods..! We knew you’d make it, we just knew..!” It was Asher, Zemer and, following as fast as his legs would allow, little Yemah. The two youngest had been quickly hidden from the fury of the fighting by several of the other mothers from the village while Asher loosed arrows at the enemy, and had quickly become separated in the long confusion that followed. Clearly distressed, but apparently only thankful to know that their cousin had somehow survived, the three were overwhelmed to see him and greeted Skara enthusiastically by leaping forward and almost bowling him over. Solemn as he was, Skara couldn’t help but laugh at this, overjoyed to know that his Uncle’s children had remained safe and moreover, that they could finally join his family in the stone city as he promised. “Boys, boys,” he started, wiping tears from his eyes, “I’m alive and well, but still a little shaken. Relieved to see you all, nonetheless – come,” he indicated to the growing crowd, “everyone follow us to the hall, let’s set a fire and.. well, I’m honestly not sure where to start. This has indeed been a tragic and exhausting day whatever might still come, and none of us need spend more of it on our feet.”
The black procession slowly poured into the city, shuffling along wordlessly with the wary pace of a beaten people. By the hundreds they filled the wide avenues between the squat stone buildings and flowed lazily toward the great hall, where Skara and his family set about searching for clothing, blankets and enough containers with which to distribute water. Andar felt particularly useless, but was refused his services in building fires in the dozens of hearths that dotted the streets, instead instructed to join the wounded inside the hall and have his wounds attended to by those still able. Despite the fact that twilight had set, the growing glow cast by the great fire in the sky now left them all in a continuing sort of half-light, both a practical blessing and an ominous, forbidding threat that seemed to weigh on everything.
Once it appeared that everyone had arrived that would, it became painfully clear just how few of those hunters and soldiers that had stood against He-Tauhasa had survived the conflict. Although the travellers were now safe and could finally find rest, an air of sadness filled the hall and the faces of every one of them knowing that for most, their husbands and fathers had been lost. Skara realised as he looked out at his people that it was now his place to say something, to assume leadership of the situation that they had all found themselves in, and so whispered to Sura that he might stand before them and say a few words. If for nothing else, than to reassure them that they were finally safe from further harm and heartache. He peered into the quasi-twilight outside as he nervously considered just what he might say to them, hoping that Yamnaya would return quickly from his work, but knowing also that they should be made to wait in the dark no longer.
Skara moved carefully through the sea of bodies, many resting and some already fast asleep and took his place at the head of the table directly in front of the main fireplace, which was now blazing away. His heart weighing heavier at that moment than the stone lintel atop it, he raised his hands as if to call for silence and attention, and opened his mouth to speak.
10. The King’s Last Stand
The Watchers at Uru-Mah had worked tirelessly in the days since Skara’s last visit, making final preparations and completing modifications to their compound in anticipation of the arrival of the free men and women of the valley. Despite the fact that much of the former knowledge and wisdom of their order had been lost or forgotten in the many centuries which followed their hubris, awareness of the coming disaster had long been documented and steps carefully taken to ensure that no matter what, they would be ready and able to defend mankind against it.
For his dedication, Yamnaya had been granted absolute sole direction over their efforts, and when those that laboured had finally reached a point in their work that he might be able to complete all remaining tasks alone, the rest of his order bade him a brief and ritualistic farewell before they gathered whatever tools and equipment were needed and departed to a massive underground bunker, older than any of the other structures at the settlement and all but buried at the far eastern edge of the compound. Within this bunker was housed a strange and mysterious machine from the ancient world, a vehicle of incredible power and engineering crafted by sciences that even the Watchers themselves no longer understood entirely. Oddly shaped, not unlike a bottom-heavy zeppelin in appearance but without any obvious method of propulsion save for a wide, cylindrical hollow which extended from point to stern, the vessel had not been activated since most of their earliest memories (we are reminded that the Watchers were not bound to the same fleeting mortality as men), from the time of first contact with the Clovis, across the seas. And in this hour of desperate need it was to them that their order would return.
Soon after they had all entered the hanger and boarded the vessel, for the first time in an age a warming hum like the charge of a massive build of electricity filled the chamber as the great and ancient Vimana began to slowly draw its energy from the very air surrounding it before it would eventually take to the sky in a fluid and soundless motion. Secretly Yamnaya had envied the journey that his brethren were about to embark upon, however he knew that at least one must remain behind alone to ensure the eventuation of their masterplan. After he stood and watched them ascend into the heavens on a column of pale blue light, silently following the craft with his eyes as it diminished into little more than a tiny speck on the horizon, he turned to resume his duties, working to realise the final blueprint for their last work of manufacture which they had aptly named ‘The Defender.’
As he moved silently about the compound, he was for the first time struck by the cold sterility of the surroundings of what had become his home. Not a day had gone by since his brethren had first settled atop the plateau that there hadn’t been at least a few others present to give life and company to its halls and to his efforts. Now however, stone, silent calculation and a growing uneasiness akin to the calm before a storm seemed suddenly to encase him like a dark cocoon of trepidation and dread. He mused emotionlessly on the feeling for a moment, tracing the path of the sun between the canopy above and reckoned that Skara and the villagers should arrive at their city by nightfall, all things going well. “Best get back to it, else we’re caught by surprise,” he muttered to himself, before returning to his work.
Shortly after noon, Skara and the men and women of the valley finally reached the base of the plateau, where after only a short climb they would eventually ascend to their final destination. The journey had been arduous, and due to the difficulties of travelling with women and children had taken much longer than he might have anticipated. Still, they appeared to be on track to reach the end of their travel within the given window and hopefully then would find safety in the surrounding mountainside. As the golden disc of the midday sun burned hot overhead, they picked up the pace and found renewed spirits with the end of their travels finally in sight. No sooner had they taken to the last leg however, settling into a steady rhythmic march to the summit than the shrill blast of a hunting horn sounded from somewhere far off in the distance behind them, cutting through the balmy stillness of the early afternoon and splitting Skara’s consciousness like the fell strike of a newly keened blade.
The rest of the villagers too had been startled by the sound, and as one stopped dead in their tracks and turned to try and locate the source of the noise. Far off in the distance, barely discernible and only at the very lowest hills proceeding the flat they could just make out a wide, shapeless cloud of moving bodies, clearly an army or some sort of migrating force, that seemed to slowly course in their direction. Squinting as best he could to make out the identity of what he irrationally supposed might be another large group of tardy travellers from the valley, Andar turned to his brother and asked, “Who are they, that follow with such haste..? Have your Watchers promised sanctuary to others from the surrounding lands..?” To which Skara replied, “Not that I am aware of. What I do know, however, is that that herald was not meant as a salutation – the hunting horn would never be used in such a fashion, even under duress. Come, let’s encourage haste and keep them moving. We don’t have time to stop, for whoever it might be.”
Quickly, Skara and Andar clapped loudly and yelled at their kinsmen to snap them out of discussion regarding their pursuers, commanding that they make haste to reach the summit without delay. While the two of them had led the group to this point in the journey thus far, they now deliberately eased their way to the rear of the procession where they might shout encouragement while also keeping a close and watchful eye on those who followed, and were now closing in with clear haste and an apparent fierce resolve. The villagers stumbled over thick clumps of dense grasses and scrambled over loose rocks as their passage steepened, and as the day’s heat began to melt the snow atop peaks far beyond their line of sight, small streams and rivulets which coursed erratically down the slope turned much of the fertile soil in places to mud, making the going ever more difficult.
Eventually, just as the group had the summit within their sights, a second, louder blast of the same hunter’s horn rang out, almost deafening and from much closer this time, prompting them all to immediately stop and turn. As they did, they were finally able to clearly identify the other party, and as he recognised the deep red banners they held fiercely aloft Skara’s blood ran cold. His massive bulk positioned astride the largest royal ox he had ever seen, He-Tauhasa Ihreikas and the entire capital army that had departed Çatalhöyük in pursuit of their prisoner stood armed to the teeth before them and incensed that Skara’s heresies remained unpunished. Their king had swiftly commanded his emissaries to assemble those fighters he had called to the capital for his campaign against the West to instead pursue Skara, and the advancing army had already begun ascending the foothills as he cursed himself immediately for revealing the whereabouts of their destination when pleading for clemency so many days earlier. “Surely such a force is far beyond anything those left of us can resist – do they plan to slaughter us all..?” He thought to himself, suddenly feeling all at once frightened, deflated and desperate.
Realising that they would not all be able to completely clear the lip of the plateau before they were caught from behind, Skara sprang quickly into action, separating all of the men and boys from the women and children and commanded the latter continue on ahead without them. As those unable to fight reluctantly resumed their ascent, he and Andar quickly distributed what few weapons they had brought with them and set about formulating a strategy for defending and, if they could not be successful, at least slowing down their pursuers. By his estimation, the people of the valley were easily outnumbered five-to-one, odds that left precious little hope of any victory should worst come to worst. They formed a defensive crescent across the low of the final hill, and waited nervously, shoulder to shoulder, for the inevitable.
Within minutes, He-Tauhasa’s army closed distance and halted some fifty meters short in front of them. Skara could now finally make out the identities of his close guard, and was surprised to find He-Xur occupying the right hand command position of the King’s forces. He and Andar traded nervous glances from the head of their group as the opposing force merely stood silent for several moments until He-Tauhasa’s inevitable challenge boomed forth in a commanding tone; “Skara of the Valley, it is no small feat that you have managed to slither from the clutches of your King, and the final justice which now awaits you. Nor, sadly, does it come as any real surprise that with your poisonous, treasonous words you have been able to coerce those that have remained in your home into joining you in your misguided quest toward the forbidden city in the hills, where those worms of a vanquished foe reside. Know now however that the chase is won, and I have come to, and by the gods will, see justice done.”
“Justice..?” Skara called back scornfully, “What justice would you see done here, my King..?” He bravely spat the title at the other man, as if the word no longer held any value, and went on; “I have brought you tidings of the only true prophesy which comes from those that know. I have proven my belief in your arena, and would now lead those that I love to safety. I have reasoned, nay, pleaded with you and your council to see the truth, but you would still prefer only to listen to the words of madmen, ghosts who,” he scanned the rest of He-Tauhasa’s forces, not finding a single seer among their ranks, “who would not even join their people this day. If you still choose to believe in the fearful offerings of witchdoctors and would oppose us so close from completing our journey – then go ahead and kill us all. We’ll stand our ground, much as the alternative is death anyway.” The rest of the defenders found their courage then and cheered, raising aloft their axes and spears in solidarity as He-Tauhasa digested Skara’s reply.
Slowly, and even before the events in the sky had come to pass, He-Tauhasa had felt his power over the men and women of the South beginning to wane, and his grip over those assembled to weaken. There had been talk in darkened corners of his soft touch regarding those to the West, and even the occasional whiff of conspiracy borne on the winds and whispers of his court. He had resolved upon their departure to take a stronger stance, to stand by the aggressive precedents set by his forebears and in Skara’s case, make an example of all traitors and challengers to his authority wherever they might be found. In his own mind, he had never had a choice. “Absolute rule must be maintained by absolute means.” Raising a heavy, knotted staff he grasped in his right hand, he signalled his forces to advance on the defenders, only bellowing a loud and terrifying war cry as he spurred his awful beast into a slow trot.
Skara was stunned that it had actually come down to this, that his king would command the armies of the South to attack their own flesh and blood. A vivid shock ran down his spine, and he fearfully gripped his long spear tightly with both hands. Just as the remaining villagers too had readied themselves for what was about to come, and those women and children further up on the hillside stopped and turned to witness the violence that threatened to unfold, a loud and familiar voice rang out unexpectedly from He-Tauhasa’s own ranks, bidding the army to again halt its approach at the final moment. The voice belonged to He-Xur who, with two trunk-like arms outstretched ahead of him first turned to the army of Çatalhöyük and then to his leader, demanding; “Ihreikas, my king – you must stop this madness now..! These people that you would war with this day are our brothers from the Valley, do you not recognise them..? Has the hateful shroud of blind vengeance so clouded your mind that you would cast down your wrath upon those who call you their champion..? Many men amongst us have called them neighbours, friends and family for our entire lives. I will not fight them, not like this – we will not slay our brothers..!”
Murmurs of agreement swelled among those closest to He-Xur, and it became clear that while many of the King’s own men might have followed him blindly into the fray, the menfolk of the Valley, particularly those with their own loved ones, lovers and children so very nearly within their reach would not be so easily led to betrayal. Very quickly a division broke within the ranks separating those who sided without question with their ruler, and those unwilling to participate in an inevitable slaughter. He-Tauhasa’s eyes bulged as the breadth of He-Xur’s treachery hit home, and he turned to face his subordinate; “Such insolence I would expect from those lowest among us, such that I might find leniency knowing that it came from a place of ignorance, but from you, He-Xur – such defiance will not be tolerated. So be it..!” He rallied what was close to two-thirds of the number that had followed him east then, and He-Xur likewise and with only a slight gesture of his right hand brought his soldiers quickly in line to oppose him.
Skara could not believe what was happening. So suddenly had such overwhelming odds been dramatically lessened that he managed to afford himself a quiet sigh of relief, though the situation was still far from positive and odds nowhere near in their favour. He-Tauhasa slowly rode the length of his line, quietly delivering stern words of encouragement to his soldiers as he did so while He-Xur and those who remained loyal to the Valley stood stoic and silent, merely waiting for the signal to attack. There had not been any kind of real civil conflict among the people of the Southern Lands in many years, with most of those soldiers comprising the King’s army too young to have seen or even remembered the horrors of war. Nervous though they were, for the time being the penalty for desertion was repeated enough that they would rather fight than bring down the very real wrath of Ihreikas and his guards upon themselves. A few moments later, He-Tauhasa once more took his place at the fore, and with another short blast from his hunting horn and no further discussion, the battle was begun.
The fighting commenced ferociously as those closest to He-Tauhasa felt compelled, as much out of fear as anything, to prove their loyalty to their leader. The larger force ran recklessly across the hillside all but ignoring Skara and his villagers and crashed haphazardly into those of He-Xur, breaking apart and almost swallowing them up in a loud and frenzied skirmish. Against the cries of the women and children above but without hesitation, Skara beckoned Andar and the rest of his company to descend into the fray, and they too engaged in a wild offensive against the pursuing army, the sounds of shield, spear and axe being splintered, shattered and smashed ringing out loud and constant over the lowlands beyond.
From among the villagers, Sura could only stand helplessly and spectate, and hope that the gods would protect her husband. She brought their children close, shielding little Kirti’s eyes from the bloodshed below and prayed a solemn prayer; “Sky Father, Enlil, your head lifted high in princely worth and who loves righteousness and truth. Named with an august name, for whom Anu has determined a great destiny, and Ninlil..! The valiant Ninurta is your helper. In the E-kur, Nuska the august minister of Enlil, the assembly leader of all lands, is your foremost palace superintendent. Throughout your reign, may you carry your neck high – in princely manner may you lift your head high..! Protect him to whom my heart is promised, prolong the days of his life for Samsu-iluna.” She could now no longer bear to watch, and holding her son and daughter against her bosom turned and crouched away from the scene, hiding her tears lest Skara find distraction in her distress.
So many bodies fell in those first few seconds, succumbing to the sheer horrible might of He-Tauhasa’s forces as they hacked at, slashed and hurled their axes and spears into the unprotected heads and quivering bellies of their enemy. It was by all accounts a complete and utter massacre, and despite Skara’s aid it quickly became clear that without some sort of miracle, the defenders would soon be overcome to a man, leaving the women and children of the village defenceless and without hope for the coming days’ events. Skara looked out across the fray as he held back several of the King’s guards just in time to see both Gidri and Gizzal, brothers he had hunted with and known a lifetime, overrun by his soldiers, beaten down and hacked to bloody death without hesitation or remorse. Throwing his attackers back with a mighty heave of his powerful arms, he called out desperately to Andar and the rest of his hunters to rally and join him in one final push – one last retaliation for those that waited in fear above.
As the hunters of Nevalı Çori fought their way together once more, they soon realised that their time had come. Bodies continued to drop all around them, the forms of adult men that finally cried maternal as their lifeblood drained away from savage wounds while they lay broken and prone on the slope. Even He-Xur, who at the height of battle threw Skara violently aside in order to spare his friend the brunt of a wayward spear, caught the jagged point of the weapon dead center in his own chest and crashed to the earth, the vibrant life in his once fearless gaze extinguished as it searched the skies in sorrow for reprieve. For his part in everything that had brought them there, he had never truly lost touch with his own past, nor abandoned affection for those that made the village he so loved what it was. Skara prayed quickly under his breath for favour in the great judgement beyond, and swore to himself to fight until his dying breath. By both blood and honour, to avenge his friend and to defend his lands and people.
He and Andar spent the next several minutes fighting back to back, Skara parrying a hail of blows with both ends of his spear while Andar brought his own monstrous club raining down again and again onto the heads of his assailants, crushing their exposed skulls into jelly with mighty strikes and sending shards of bone, scalp and brain matter bursting out in all directions. Bloodlust quickly took hold of them both as the enemy continued to advance and they began to chance two, three and even four of their number at a time forward in an attempt to tire out the hunters in the hopes of eventually finding a gap in their defences and bringing the brothers to their knees.
Stones and arrows fell like hailstones around them, and before long Andar had caught a half-dozen shafts in his back and shoulders which slowed his attack and severely limited his movement. Skara too found himself racked with pain as a lone archer at higher ground took careful aim and loosed three bolts at once into his chest which, while narrowly missing his heart and lungs, caused him to double over in agony and forced him to struggle to defend himself as he was made to take a knee. Soon enough, the crimson clouds at the corners of his vision blended with hot blood that cascaded from an open wound in his forehead, and as his ability to make out the forms of those attacking gradually diminished he knelt still and simply closed his eyes, and waited for the final deciding blow that would send him into the world beyond.
Chaos whirled all around them like a maelstrom, and just as the rest of the hunters found themselves completely surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered on all sides, ready to face fate in a final offensive push, an unexpected and incredible boom accompanied by a fierce and persistent flash of white light suddenly erupted violently from between the warring parties and their kin. The sudden explosion stopped everyone dead in their tracks and caused He-Tauhasa’s great ox to buck the mountain of a man from astride its back before it carved a path through the ranks and fled from the battlefield to safety. A thick, grey cloud of smoke appeared to billow out from the very earth itself, choking everyone near enough to breathe it in and fearful and unsure what exactly was happening, both forces stood perfectly still and stared wide-eyed at the heart of the plume until the reason for its appearance could be distinguished.
It was as though time stood still then, and for all those locked in combat a strange catharsis appeared to washed over them like a mountain of cold blood. The lingering cries of the dead and dying seemed to fade into white noise as the fog of war was lifted, and the deep red-green hues of the fresh and shallow lake of blood upon which the opposing forces stood grew to taint earth and sky in a sickening tableaux of wanton death and human suffering. A moment of clarity was shared by all in those seconds, and even He-Tauhasa was compelled to re-evaluate in a flash every action that had brought him and his own to the abattoir of mortal carnage in which they now found themselves. “The Gods have surely left us,” his mind silently cried as he looked around, “for this day, we shame them all.”
Out of the thinning haze, Yamnaya then appeared with a darkness on his face that could have swallowed the Sun. Everyone but Skara immediately took several paces back in shock as the veritable giant of a man strode toward them without so much as pausing, and held aloft a thick leather belt to which more than a dozen glistening vials were strapped, not unlike those that Sura and Andar had used to persuade their kinsmen to join them in their exodus. He stopped several yards short of the closest among them, and without blinking removed and cast a second vial down at his feet which too erupted, birthing a wall of intense white fire several feet tall that coursed linear in either direction, quickly separating the Watcher from those in the fray. After allowing the barrier to burn for a few seconds, he raised a lithe right hand toward them, and spoke in a tone that caused the very earth beneath them to tremble:
“Children of the Valley – stop this madness at once..!” Yamnaya admonished the crowd with a low, booming roar. He-Tauhasa struggled to raise himself out of the mud, propping his torso up on both elbows and stared incredulously over his ample belly at the Watcher and while many in his army could only stand rooted to the spot, dozens more immediately dropped their weapons and ran blindly away from the imposing figure in a mad dash, abandoning their leader without so much as a word and sprinting desperately down the hill to safety. Although Skara could not make out the figure of Yamnaya through all the caked blood and matted hair that covered his bashed and swollen face, he recognised the voice of the one that had sent him on his quest and in spite of himself managed to smile and allow a short and delirious laughter to leave his lips. Andar held his club tight and merely stood warily gazing at the figure standing before him, and not a single soul dared make a sound as Yamnaya regained his composure, and prepared to deliver the remainder of his admonition.
A chill wind whipped suddenly down from the mountains, causing everyone to immediately shiver in spite of the season and although dusk was still many hours away, the shadows at the feet of all who stood before him suddenly were lost to a lightless moment. Yamnaya took several deliberate paces forward, and as the fierce wall of flames began to subside, he continued; “Long into the day have I toiled, for you all, in anticipation of the arrival of your kind. Without rest I have devoted the days and nights since last I spoke with the one whom I trusted to deliver our warning to readying the stronghold at Uru-Mah to withstand the coming curse from above, and now..” he paused, his chiseled features transforming into a mask of dark disdain, “now that all has been completed so that I might finally find a moment’s rest, I am assaulted in my peace by the clash of weapons and warfare on my very doorstep..!” He bellowed the final observation with such unbridled anger that those closest to him either jumped out of their skin or dropped whatever weapons they held and ran to find safety at the rear of the remaining brigade.
After again working to placate his rage, Yamnaya squinted out from beneath the thick hood he perpetually wore and scanned the crowd of cowering men in front of him, as if seeking out a familiar face. His gaze eventually landed on Skara, still crouching in the thick mud of the battlefield and a just for a moment, an almost perceptible flush of panic washed over him. Without speaking, Yamnaya strode through what was now little more than a shallow trench of embers where the earth itself had been scorched and walked over to Skara. As he neared the other man, those forces that still had him surrounded, and Andar too, quickly backed away to clear a space some several yards around them both.
He-Tauhasa could be heard raising his vast bulk back on its feet with an audible grunt from somewhere behind the lines as Yamnaya knelt down and cleared away the thick, bloody mess that covered Skara’s face. Immediately he could see that the valley man was in mortal danger; in addition to a heavy gash that ran across the length of his scalp and continued to bleed profusely, the tails of several arrows protruding from his chest rose and fell in a slow, rhythmic shudder with every desperate and agonising breath he took. Skara was dying, and Yamnaya knew that if there was any hope in saving the man that he had grown to know as a friend, he must act quickly.
Without wasting another breath addressing the crowd that were now looking around at one another with confused expressions as if to ask, “Well, what do we do now..?” Yamnaya scooped Skara up in his arms and quickly turned toward the rise, just as Sura and their two children broke away from the villagers and descended in a half-panic to join him. No sooner had the Watcher taken his first step toward them, however, all were halted by another voice that called out boldly from the throng. He-Tauhasa had watched cautiously up to this point, careful not misstep in deciding how to address Yamnaya but as he turned to leave with his quarry could no longer contain himself. “Wait, Watcher..!” the great man yelled as he pushed his ample girth through the crowd to approach Yamnaya who, sensing the situation that was about to unfold, lowered Skara gently to the ground once more just as Sura, Harna and Kirti arrived to administer as best they could to his wounds.
The Watcher turned slowly to face He-Tauhasa, who cleared the wall of opposing forces in a huff and continued, challenging the Watcher for possession of the fallen hunter. “This man you would so casually steal away from his fate, this man belongs to me. For his heresy, his treachery and crimes against his king, I have pursued him from the capital to the valley, and to these hills and for that, I claim him. I, and no other. You will leave him and return to your hovel in the mountain’s side, such as it is. I’ve no quarrel with you, whatever it is you claim you are – but I warn you,” he stepped toward Yamnaya, and perhaps not so much for lack of wisdom as an abundance misplaced anger made the mistake of thrusting a single fat finger in the Watcher’s face, “contest me if you dare. Know that with my first command, however, those men that still surround you will exact my will in earnest, and will have no need for a second. No amount of magic vials and parlour tricks will outweigh the authority of the line of Ihreikas. Not now, and not so long as there is breath in my body.” No sooner had the challenge been set than the skies seemed to darken still more, and Yamnaya rose to his full imposing height, suddenly seething with anger at the insolence of the gluttonous and poor-mannered man that would issue such a challenge.
No-one upon the hillside dared move as they awaited the response. Sura knelt and cradled her husband close like a crippled child, whispering loving sentiments as tears rolled softly down her porcelain cheeks. In spite of his wounds, Andar stood tall and ready to resume the fight as soon as He-Tauhasa’s order was given, and once more the grey fog of war descended upon the battlefield as the gravity of those next few moments finally dawned on them all.