Gareth Jack Sansom

Here is the Final Chapter from Alluvion:

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.

iii. Epilogue

“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 the 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.

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Here is the Eleventh Chapter from Alluvion:

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.

Here is the Tenth Chapter from Alluvion:

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.

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

‘THE VISITOR’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boom! Boom! Boom!

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

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

A Seven Letter Word for Divine Intervention..

‘DEGREE OF SEPARATION’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A moment later, Dominic burst through the door.

Funding, Future Plans and Editing Work

Hello everyone,

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

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

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

Previous proofing and copy editing clients include:

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

    – Kim C. (University Student)

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

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

    Thank you,
    Gareth Sansom

    Here is a Fourth Excerpt from Alluvion

    04. A Grand Decree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    .. Inspired by a Long Walk in a Dark Forest

    ‘THE GLADE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

    The call finally came at nine minutes past 4am on Tuesday, February 2nd. The ring from his phone shattered the silence in their bedroom and wrested him from a long and beautiful dream in which he was wandering alone in a massive oaken forest, surrounded by tall trees and warmed by golden summer sunlight breaking through the canopies above. Eric was fast asleep, and had been for hours. It was the middle of Winter, and the small house that he and his wife Nancy shared in Brixton, South London was cold and the wanly lit streets outside thick with an early morning fog that rolled down from the river and flowed through them like so many silent ghosts. He groaned loudly and turned, setting his feet reluctantly on the polished wooden floor beside their bed and shook the sleep from his eyes, searching for the source of the unwelcome noise.

    The call came from the Royal Hospital in the city, and he was greeted on the line by an elderly man who identified himself as Dr. Morgan and whose nervous tone immediately gave Eric cause for concern. After making sure he had reached the right person, the other man wasted no time advising him that in spite of their greatest care and attention his mother had finally passed, gently and quietly in the night. Although she had been admitted into care several months earlier with little chance that she would recover from a long bout of pneumonia, the shock of waking up to such news caused Eric to break down and the sound of his quiet sobbing awoke Nancy who rolled over and embraced her husband, knowing immediately what had happened. Eric regained his composure and thanked the doctor for doing the best he could before hanging up and again weeping openly in her arms.

    It had been a terrible twenty-four hours after they rushed to the hospital to greet the staff that had made Edith’s final days on earth comfortable, and by the time her funeral had finally come around neither Eric nor Nancy felt that they had any emotion left. They stood silently numb as their bishop delivered her last rites and watched bleary-eyed as her body was slowly lain to rest in a quiet corner of an old cemetery, sheltered by the nurturing arms of a strong willow tree. Edith loved the willow, and Eric knew that she would be at peace here in this place beside her husband and his father who had himself passed-on more than a decade earlier. “At last,” he thought to himself, looking out across the field of stones as a soft breeze animated the long, vibrant grass surrounding them, “you and Dad are together again.” The rest of their friends and family slowly dissipated in time, leaving him and Nancy alone to come to terms with the fact that they were both finally gone.

    They held a small wake at a house just outside of the city where his Aunt Meredith, his mother’s sister lived and tried their best to put on a smile and talk only of the happier times he had shared with his parents growing up. Eric had become an only child shortly before his eighth birthday, after his younger sister Julia had mysteriously disappeared one night and although this had been an intense cause for talk and speculation at the time, everyone present was still wiser than to bring it up even now. After most of them, particularly the four or five other elderly women with whom Edith had spent much of her twilight years enjoying outings and other various activities had exhausted themselves of all grief, conversation turned to laughter as they fondly remembered her quirks. Eric’s mother had been raised in a small town east of the Lake District in the country’s north where most still spoke their mind, and her sharp tongue and irreverent personality had caused her more than once to land herself (and often too her close family) in hot water.

    They ended up in hysterics as they fondly remembered the time she had berated her husband mid-prayer in front of the congregation for falling asleep during a sermon, and how she had almost chased poor Nancy half-way down the street the first time she had met her after finding out that her son was seeing an Irish Catholic girl. For all her odd behaviour, Edith had proved to be the most loving and genuine mother Eric could have asked for, and despite the large group of well-wishers that had turned out to take part in her wake, deep down he had never felt more alone.

    He eventually excused himself from the rest of the party at the close of another anecdote and walked out in front of the house where he stood and looked out into the street, sighing heavily and wondering just what exactly he was supposed to do now. As if to answer, a short, well-dressed man in a dark dinner suit also left the gathering through the front door and stood beside him, offering him a quick gesture of respect before pulling a cigarette from his breast pocket, lighting it up and joining him in staring out across the neighbourhood. After a minute, the other man turned to Eric, extending his right hand and spoke:

    “George Kaczynski, it’s nice to meet you,” he started. “I knew your mother briefly in the final few weeks before.. until now.” He finished awkwardly. The name sounded familiar to Eric, who finally realised who it was he was speaking to. He continued, “I was asked to be the executor of your mother’s estate, and was hoping I could have a word today to perhaps arrange to meet and run through a few things.. not today, and there’s no rush of course. Edith and I discussed her intentions at length over the past few weeks, and she was very firm in making sure that I don’t..” he chuckled for a moment, and Eric smiled, “that I didn’t dilly-dally around like every other smooth-talking shark she’d dealt with. I was hoping you could perhaps stop by my office tomorrow, if you’re up to it..?”

    “Yes, of course – thank you. I know my mother wouldn’t have had it if I didn’t keep track of her things, you know how she is.. was. I’ll stop-in first thing tomorrow, let you get it out of the way.” George smiled a stiff smile as he crushed his cigarette underfoot, shook Eric’s hand and passed him his business card before making his way out into the street and to his car. Eric stood there alone for another several minutes before squinting skyward and sighing heavily once more. “Well, let’s get this over with,” he thought as he turned and made his way back inside, eager to put the event behind him.

    He and Nancy met with Mr. Kaczynski early the next morning at his building in the West End, and quickly got down to business. Edith and her husband David had accumulated very little in the way of non-material assets over the years, acquiring little else other than several old vintage cars (Eric’s father had at one time been a mechanic) and a lifetime of furniture and possessions which still filled the large country house they had shared in rural Cumbria in the country’s far north. As their only son, Eric had more or less been given sole inheritance, and their meeting served as little more than a formality in signing their home and contents over to him before he and Mr. Kaczynski shook hands once more and they left with a set of keys and a long list of inventory for larger assets that remained at the property. It was a bittersweet moment for him as he reflected on the many years that he had spent growing up in that old house, and in the knowledge that it is and would remain empty now that his parents had both finally passed-on.

    He and Nancy decided to pack their bags that Friday and drive up to the house to begin the monstrous task of sorting, cleaning and clearing through three decades of clutter and belongings that still filled every room. He had decided and she agreed that the longer they put it off, the more difficult a task it would become and at first light they packed a weekend’s worth of clothing and boxes into the back of her cherry-red V60 station wagon and set-off on a road trip that would take them a little over five hours, traffic permitting. The road out of London itself proved to be a long one however, and despite leaving early they found themselves caught in gridlock on the far side of the river for almost an hour before finally breaking free and reaching open road, and the scenic surroundings of the English countryside.

    In spite of the solemn reason for their venture north, it was all that Nancy could do to hide her excitement at spending a weekend in the country. The pair had met while studying in the inner-city and spent the next five and a half years moving from share house to apartment, and apartment to condo and had never once had the luxury of anything larger than a roofed al-fresco as a backyard. She found herself energised by the fresh air and wide open spaces, gushing incessantly throughout their entire journey and the only way that Eric could think to put an end to her excited narrative was to suggest they stop at Carlisle for a long-lunch and some sightseeing before carrying-on the remainder of their journey to Wetheral, their final destination.

    While they sat and ate at one of a hundred small delicatessens along the highway, Eric’s mind wandered back to his teenage years spent growing up in the country. The green fields and endless rolling hills brought him back to a simpler time in his life where he would while away the hours roaming through the many woods and glens, mapping every brook and stream which intersected the flourishing landscape. He had loved to fish, and sometimes otherwise to just lose himself in the openness and emptiness of being far away from it all. He also remembered more difficult times as a child coming to terms with the disappearance of his younger sister in one such wood outside the family home, and the taunts and accusations made toward him by the other children at their school, and even their parents. He had been the last one to see her alive before she vanished, and the guilt for having lost her, rational or not weighed heavy on him for most of his adult life.

    Nancy on the other hand seemed to be having the time of her life, and beamed a wide and beautiful smile after taking a big bite of a thick sandwich from across the table. After struggling to clear the mouthful, she asked, “This is the first time you’ve taken me up here, you know. How much further is the drive..?” He smiled back at her as she wiped a dollop of butter from her cheek, and replied, “We’re almost there now. Wetheral should only be about ten miles east of here. Let’s have a quick wander along here first to make sure we have everything we need, then we’ll shoot over and get started.” They finished their meal and stopped-in at a grocery store for cleaning products and a few bottles of wine before returning to the car and setting-off in the direction of the village.

    As they pulled out of the parking space, they stopped momentarily to let a small family pass before returning to the highway. The two of them watched as the middle-aged parents carefully shepherded a young son and daughter in front of the car and down the footpath, and Eric took Nancy’s hand instinctively into his. They had wanted and tried desperately themselves to have children of their own from the day they married, however despite several hopeful starts eventually decided to see specialist who broke the unfortunate news to them that Nancy had inherited a rare genetic condition which left her physically unable to bear children. Despite all of the wonders of modern medicine, it seemed that little could be done to help them and every time she saw other couples out with their own she couldn’t help but hurt. Eric was extraordinarily supportive however, and would simply say that, “If it’s meant to be, it will be. Until then I’ll just have to go ahead and love you that extra bit more.”

    It was mid-afternoon when they finally pulled-up at the end of a long, unmade driveway that snaked away from the road and descended toward the property which was nestled cosily at the edge of a wide, dark wall of trees. The scenery overlooking it was breathtaking; the house itself was a rustic two-storey affair built mostly from old, rugged sandstone blocks arranged beneath a broad and weathered thatched roof, and it backed onto the western edge of the Wetheral Woods which towered above the roofline like a black curtain and ran for miles in either direction. Despite being late in the day, a shallow mist rose from the soil at the edges of the clearing and gave the surreal impression that they had somehow travelled out of their current time and back to an old and wonderful page in history. The two sat mouths agape as the car idled for a full minute before turning to look at each other, and without speaking Eric nosed the vehicle down toward the front of the house where they parked and got out for a better view.

    The house lay almost completely in the shadow of the woods, and Eric and Nancy both shuddered visibly as the cold country air caressed their skin. “It’s just.. beautiful,” she said, sighing deeply as she looked around to completely take it all in. “The old homestead,” Eric replied, shrugging. “I’ll open up, then let’s get this stuff inside and set a fire. We can take a look around tonight to get an idea of what’s needed and get started on the heavy lifting in the morning.” He fumbled for the keys and unlocked the heavy wooden door which creaked loudly as it opened and returned to the car for an armful of boxes and bags. The two gingerly crossed the threshold and moved through the house, making their way to a large and homely kitchen at the far end to begin unpacking. Eric stacked bottles, sprays and paper towels on the counter and Nancy set their suitcases up in the guest room down the hall. She was astonished at just how authentic the interior of the house had remained, and wandered about touching the fixtures, scarred beams and cornices like a curious child, oohing and aahing as she went.

    Eric started a fire in the living room and once they were settled disappeared to the kitchen momentarily, returning with two full glasses of wine. He sipped at one and handed Nancy the other before settling down in an old chair by the fireplace, and the two then talked for hours about his childhood, the house and his life growing up in such a strange and isolated place. Eric had never much liked speaking in detail about his life in the country, save for an occasional complaint and had himself adjusted quite nicely to London’s fast-paced and contemporary lifestyle. Given his obvious reservations she had never pressed him for more on his background, but as they finished their first bottle of red and opened another, he began to relax and spoke at length of his father and mother, and seemed to enjoy reminiscing about their old-fashioned attitudes and almost comical day-to-day experiences.

    After a couple of hours and when the last light of day had completely vanished from outside the heavy double-glazed windows, Nancy finally plucked up the courage to ask Eric about his sister, something she had never quite felt comfortable bringing up but had been dying to know about since he had first dismissed the subject years earlier by simply saying, “Julia disappeared when we were very young, near our home. It tore us apart for years, but it is what it is.. it’s not a time and place I want to revisit often, if I can readily avoid it.” Her question had seemingly come out of nowhere, and although he squirmed when she asked there was something in her delivery, the innocent concern with which came the question, “What about Julia..? The two of you moved here when you were only very young, do you mind if I ask what happened..?” that made him feel it was time to at least touch on the subject. She immediately apologised when she noticed the wide smile disappear from his face, adding, “I’m sorry, you don’t have to..”

    “No, no.. it’s alright,” he replied in resign, “you and I have known each other long enough, and it’s not fair for me to keep such a thing to myself.” He stiffened, and took another long sip of wine. After pausing for a minute, staring at his glass while the fire crackled and hissed in the background, he began. “My parents.. our parents had bought this place themselves after living in Manchester for nearly ten years. After they were married, and the two of us got older they decided to sell the garage and move us north, away from the city and to what they thought would be a safer place to raise two small children. Dad’s family were originally from Birmingham, and he’d grown up knowing exactly what the bigger cities were like.. the violence, drugs. He didn’t want to expose us to everything that he knew went on if he could help it. I was seven, and Julia five. We were both so excited to be moving to the country – I loved the outdoors and Julia was convinced she’d catch a fairy out in the woods.” He smiled for a moment, before taking another sip of wine and sitting closer by the fire.

    A few days after we arrived, and before enrolling in school we had pleaded with our parents to let the two of us explore the woods behind the house. We rarely got along as it was, but when we did band together there was no amount of protest the two of them could put up to stop us from getting what we wanted. Despite it being only late January, we were relentless and after a day or so our parents caved and after warning us to watch out for wolves and foxes and other forest nasties, we rugged-up in our warmest clothes, Julia insisting she wear a brand new tartan dress our parents had bought her, and set-out in the afternoon to get an idea of what was out there. You have to understand that this was quite a few years ago, and we were miles away from the nearest town. They had no reason at all to worry about there being any danger out there to us other than ourselves. We said our goodbyes to the both of them and tore out the back door, running blindly into the tall trees beyond.”

    “We ran and ran through the forest, leaping over streams and fallen trees and laughed and laughed the entire afternoon. It was amazing out there,” he recalled, staring into the fire, “We must have covered several miles, and were out there for hours before we finally realised that it was beginning to get dark. Julia became scared when we could no longer remember what direction was home, and as the sky grew darker I decided that I’d better make it to higher ground to get an idea of just how far we’d come, and which way we needed to go. I shimmied up a massive oak tree, and just as I neared the top I finally got my head over the canopy and could get an idea of where we were. I ambled around the trunk carefully, as the branches had become quite thin and despite now having a clear view, all I could see were the tops of more trees in every direction. Julia was calling out to me from the ground below, and I could tell that she was upset.. I had no idea where we were, and the last light of dusk was quickly fading away.”

    Nancy was herself growing clearly distressed at the retelling, her face a mask of worry and concern but Eric went on, “I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t see a light, but just as I was about to call down to her I noticed a wide, low clearing a short distance away in the other direction. It wasn’t home, but all I could think about at this point was giving her something to focus on, and getting the two of us out of the thick wood and at least to somewhere we could feel safe. I committed the way to memory and climbed back down the trunk of the tree before telling her which way we needed to go. She was so upset, and started to cry. I took her hand and with the last light guided her toward the clearing where we at least had a chance of staying safe before somebody came looking.”

    “By the time we finally made it out of the wall of trees, it was completely dark except for a sort of weak glow which filtered down from the moon overhead. It was a crescent only about half its size, but it was enough that we could safely navigate our way through the undergrowth and across the clearing. When we finally arrived, we walked in..” He stopped for a moment and furrowed his brow, as if he wasn’t quite sure how to continue. “What happened..?” she asked softly, “Did you make it out..?”

    “Not right away,” he continued. “We walked in, and that’s when.. that’s when we saw it.” He stopped again, a look of confusion mixed with apprehension taking hold of his features. To this day he was still reluctant to recall the complete story of what had happened that night. At first he had been so sure of what had taken place, with no doubt whatsoever in his mind but over the days, weeks and months that followed and by the constant dismissal of his account by everyone he had told it to, he had neglected and almost forgotten the arch and the strange ring of stones that he and his sister had stumbled upon. His teachers, friends and even his parents had eventually convinced him that what he thought he had seen was nothing more than a daydream, a mechanism of his own imagining that he had created to deal with what had really taken place. “How could anything else be the truth..?” he thought to himself, “Julia and I were simply lost in the woods, and were separated. There can’t be more to it than that.”

    Nancy was by now more than concerned about her husband, and decided that this might be a good time to lay the conversation to rest. It was late, and they had done enough that day as it was.. it was time to call it a night. “It’s okay,” she said, “let’s finish this another time. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow, and we can pick up where we left off whenever you’re ready.” She smiled and held his right hand in hers, and brushed his cheek with her left. Eric looked up at her and as he stared into her beautiful blue eyes, the pain and confusion vanished from his face. “You’re right, as usual,” he replied. He glanced at the empty glass in his left hand and then at the near-empty second bottle of red above the fireplace. “Two’s my limit anyway.” She smiled, and they cleared their glasses and bottles to the kitchen sink before returning to the guest room for a restful night’s sleep.

    Eric lay awake for hours however as his wife slept soundly beside him. He was tired and drained from the stresses of the past week, yet for some reason he just could not shut-off his mind to what had happened to Julia. It had been years since he had allowed himself to return to that place, to those recollections that he had tried so hard to forget. Yet somehow as he lay there, once more in the old house by the wood where he had lost her he was again convinced that there was more to the story than he was taught to believe. He replayed the remainder of that fateful night in his head as he stared at the ceiling, trying with all his will to recall in detail what had actually happened;

    As he and Julia left the forest wall they had found themselves in a wide natural clearing, the dark silhouettes of the trees swaying gently in the night air around it, and moved forward through the tall silver grasses that glowed almost eerily ahead of them, illuminated by the moonlight. At the centre of the clearing stood a wide and low ring of stones, and at its heart was a structure which neither of them could explain. Even now, the closest description that he could come up with was that it was a tall, grey arch of stone comprised of two wide obelisks set several feet apart and across the top, maybe five or six feet high was set a third smaller slab, which rested heavily atop the two supporting pillars. Although it was difficult to make out in the light, strange symbols were etched down the length of each pillar, and the top of the arch was adorned with words in a language that’s lettering seemed almost more to resemble an intricate pattern than a written dialect. It was to that day like nothing he had ever seen, and by the weathered state of the stones and the tall undergrowth around it had stood undisturbed and silent for an extremely long time.

    The two siblings turned to each other in amazement, immediately forgetting their predicament and walked toward the arch which stood cold and stoic against the deep blue-black of the night sky above. They crossed the circle of stones, and together reached out to touch it, if for nothing else to convince themselves that it was in fact real. They circled the structure for a moment before little Julia’s eyes widened in amazement, and she breathed, “Fairies..!” It took Eric a second before the word registered, and he scoffed back, “Fairies, unlikely.. there’s no such thing as fairies. When are you going to grow up..?” Julia scowled at this, and replied, “There is too – these are fairy stones, look at the words,” she pointed to the strange cursive lettering above them. “See..? That’s their language. You don’t know anything.” The wind had blown her thick, red hair across her face, and only her scowl and little freckled nose poked through it to convey her indignation.

    Eric scoffed again, but was too busy admiring the monument to shoot her down right away. When he had overcome his own astonishment, he instead turned and called-out into the woods, “Hey, fairies..! Come out if you’re real and prove it, if you’re not too chicken..!” Julia’s jaw dropped and she admonished her brother, who laughed her off and began teasing her for believing in make-believe and children’s stories. He poked and taunted her, and called her a baby for thinking that magical creatures actually lived in the woods behind their house. She fumed, and this only egged him on.

    Deep down he loved his sister, but he just couldn’t help himself. “You’re such a baby,” he jeered, “how can you believe such rubbish..?” Eric slapped the cold stone with his palm and again called-out into the night; “Come on, pixies, show yourselves..!” He leaned-in toward Julia, “There’s nobody here but Eric and his gullible little baby sister – and this is what I think of her fairies..!” He then proceeded to hock the biggest loogie that he could, and spat it on the nearest column. This was the final straw for Julia, who screamed, “Stop it, stop it – leave them alone..!” and chased Eric around the arch as he laughed derisively back at her.

    The two siblings ran in a wide circle around the arch, completing a full 360 degrees past the opening once, twice and a third time before Julia decided to outsmart her brother and catch him out by running through it. Eric continued around the structure and his sister turned and pivoted, leaping through the opening as he sped-up and went to circle past it a fourth time. As he rounded the far pillar he stopped and turned to face her, tired and finally ready to endure the flailing of little fists he knew was coming, but she wasn’t there. He turned again, realising that she must have doubled-back but she wasn’t ahead of him either. He stilled for several seconds and stopped to listen for her footsteps but heard nothing more than the gentle night breeze rustling through the grass and thickets, and he himself then passed through the structure, looking right and left for her. He scanned the clearing, and quickly realised that she was no longer there – she had vanished.

    He looked around nervously, panting from the chase and called-out, “Alright, I give up – stop hiding and come back.” Again, there was no sound to be heard save for his own heavy breathing and the rustling of trees in the distance. He moved out toward the stone circle, and looked behind every rock and shrub in the clearing, finding no trace of his little sister. He panicked, and called out once more, “Julia, come on – where are you..? Stop playing, I’m sorry I made fun.. come back and let’s start home.” Again nothing. She was not by the arch or behind the ring of stones. There was no way that she could have made it out to the tree line, either – she had simply disappeared. In the wan shadows cast by the moonlight, Eric went on to spend hours searching for his sister, crying and pleading into the blackness for her to come back before futility and fear of the dark caused him to finally run out into the forest and away in the vaguest of directions that he believed to be their home.

    He had eventually and miraculously arrived back at the old house in the early hours of the following morning, and was greeted by the flashing lights of several police cars and his two parents, by now worried sick for their two young children. He would never forget the looks on their faces when he arrived alone, and in the company of a search and rescue team comprising local police and volunteers had assisted in scouring the woods for days afterward for any sign of her. He had guided a number of these groups in the direction of the clearing, and although he thought he had led them several times to what he believed to resemble the one they had stumbled upon, none of them had contained an arch nor a ring of standing stones – only long, green grasses and nothing else.

    No trace of his sister or the strange stone circle were ever found again.

    Losing Julia had affected his parents deeply. Her father had taken refuge in drink, and although he could eventually control his impulse to reach for the bottle whenever the memories returned, the damage done in those few short years that followed had taken its toll, contributing heavily to his poor health and an all too early death. Eric’s entire family were plunged into turmoil as word of his sister’s disappearance became fertile ground for scandal among the other families in the small village, and although they managed to endure and somehow get on with their lives, the hushed whispers and rumour of foul play persisted long after the story had grown cold in the public eye.

    Eric sighed and rolled over in bed, deciding against feeling to try and force at least a few hours’ sleep ahead of everything he and Nancy had travelled so far to take care of in the morning. It was strange being back in the old house after so many years, but as he lay there wide awake and listened to the noises it made as it settled, a small part of him couldn’t help but feel somehow safe. In spite of how fast life might appear to pass you by in the day to day goings-on of the modern world, time spent in those places of our childhood, for better or worse always somehow seem to feel warm.

    The couple awoke to the sounds of chirping birds outside their window the next morning, just as the first rays of sunshine crept over the tops of the trees and after a home cooked breakfast set about boxing and labelling his parent’s possessions. Eric’s father had always badgered Edith to do away with the countless nic-nacs and redundant articles that she would accumulate for little to no good reason other than it being “an awful waste to throw them away,” however since his passing it seemed that she had once again returned to familiar habits. It took them both the entire day just to box up her books, ornaments and magazines set loosely about the place before they decided it was time for another breather. The two enjoyed a nice hot cup of tea as Eric once again stoked the fire, and as they sat in silence admiring the shadows it cast on the walls as it flickered, he decided in spite of his own wariness that they should get out, take a walk and experience the fresh forest air while they could.

    Nancy was less than enthusiastic however, arguing, “I’m exhausted, Eric. We’ve been at it for hours now and I’m sorry if this sounds pampered, but I’d much prefer just to sink into a nice hot bath for awhile, and de-stress. You can still go, though – I’d just rather work-out some of these knots and save my energy for round two.” She looked tired, and Eric began to wonder if she too had had trouble sleeping last night. He was nonetheless keen to stretch his legs and in honesty rather fancied the idea of a few hours of solitude, something the two of them rarely seemed to find in London. “I’ll just pop-out for a bit then, try to find a path and get the blood running again. Do you mind..?”

    “Of course not,” she replied with a smile, “after the week we’ve had a little ‘you time’ will be good. Now get lost, so I can enjoy a wine in the tub.” He laughed and kissed her on the cheek before slipping on a thick scarf and parka from his suitcase, and pulling a pair of heavy leather hiking boots onto his feet. He could already hear running water and the chink of glass as he called out goodbye, and as he left through the front door and around the back of the house he laughed again. Nancy was as tough as nails when she wanted to be, but even she seemed to be missing the modern comforts of their house back home. His breath hung about him in a thick cloud as he walked brusquely through the cold evening air, and after finding what looked to be a trail worn into the edge of the wood set off in a half-run, hoping the sudden exercise might start to warm him up.

    He had left it until late in the day to leave, and although it was only six o’clock the skies were already beginning to transform into a deep and brilliant red as the sun’s dying rays approached the horizon. Nightfall came quickly to the country, and quicker still in the Winter and after running for the better part of an hour, Eric was feeling very warm but incredibly puffed-out. He had run so fast and covered quite a lot of ground in an effort to get his blood pumping, and hadn’t even noticed that he had strayed from the forest track and veered-off into a denser, taller and more ancient part of the Wetheral that was clearly quite far from civilisation and didn’t appear at all to have been visited by anyone in the recent past. He finally stopped running and bent down, placing his hands on his knees as he doubled-over and struggled to catch his breath. “Where in heaven’s name am I..?” he thought to himself.

    His heart finally slowed, and when his breathing had returned to normal he wandered around for several minutes trying once more to find the path that had taken him there. It was beginning to get dark, and as the shadows coalesced and the air was filled with the sounds of hooting owls and other forest wildlife he started to think that his chances of getting back before nightfall were slim to none. ”She’s going to kill me this time,” he muttered to himself, and rather than waste more time trying to find the road he turned and started running again in the direction he felt he had come, believing that sooner or later he’d break through the forest wall once more, if not at the house then at least a short walk from it. As he ran he caught a glimpse of a crescent moon as it peeked through the branches above, and he was thankful that as the daylight completely disappeared he still had some way of seeing where he was going.

    After ten or fifteen more minutes however, panic started to really set in. “Surely it would start to thin-out by now,” he thought to himself, “I’m such an idiot for not taking my phone.. though I probably wouldn’t get reception out here anyway.” Just as he considered stopping once more to take further stock of his options, he noticed that the trees ahead were indeed beginning to open out, and thirty of forty yards in front of him he could just see the moonlight cutting stronger through the near-blackness, indicating that he was almost where he needed to be. He pushed himself into a sprint, desperate to get out of the woods and back to a tall glass of wine by the fire and within seconds he reached the edge of the forest and bounded out into the open night air once more.

    He slowed to a trot as he detached himself from the darkness, and it took him almost a full minute to realise that he hadn’t actually reached the end. Instead, he had stumbled into a wide clearing even deeper in the woods, ringed by the imposing black backdrop of the tree line and which was bathed only in the soft white moonlight from up above, and nothing else. Eric wiped the sweat from his brow and rubbed his eyes as he looked out across the clearing, and immediately a deep shiver ran down his spine. Far-off across the opening, and if he wasn’t somehow dreaming he could just make out the silhouette of a wide ring of low stones which ran along the ground like crooked teeth and formed a staggered circle. In the centre of the circle stood a tall, imposing structure which although he could not readily identify it as being so from a distance, his mind screamed out and he knew that he had somehow once again stumbled upon the same secret glade that he and Julia had visited in their youth, and at its heart still stood that same mysterious arch that they had found on the night she disappeared, more than twenty years earlier.

    Tears filled his eyes as his body caught up with him, and all he could say, over and over was, “No, no.. it can’t be..!” He walked across the clearing and as he reached the henge around it he was shaking. It was real, and he was right. Somewhere and somehow, after all these years he had returned. He went to cross the awkward stone ring, slowing as he neared it and the entire forest which had become so animated beyond the trees seemed suddenly to have hushed completely into a cold silence in which you could have heard a pin drop. Even in the pale light, he could still make out the same strange and wonderful symbols which extended across the central arch and down the length of either pillar, and stopped only a few feet away finding himself somehow terrified to even touch it. Memories flooded back, and the pain of losing her, Julia on that night so long ago burned inside him. He considered for a moment turning and running away from the clearing, as far away and to anywhere else but something deep within him forced him to stay and investigate further.

    It was just as he remembered. The monument stood tall, grey and cold against the dark skies above it, and when he finally plucked up the courage to reach out and touch it, a soft breeze started up once more at the forest’s edge which gently shook the tops of the trees and chilled the sweat on his face and neck. It was real. He stood before the arch, his trembling hands convincing him that he wasn’t dreaming, and in the clear and surreal warmth of the crescent moonlight he found himself speaking to it without even realising.

    “Why,” he asked of the night, without expecting an answer, “Why did you take her from me..?”

    Tears rolled down his cheeks as he dropped his head and stood against the pillar. As years of repressed anger and sorrow finally came to the surface, he leant his head against the cold stone and finally allowed himself to let it all out. The loss and loneliness, the sadness and guilt all poured out of him and away into the darkness like an awful, painful torrent. It was as he did that he began to feel a strange sensation wash over him, an idea which grew as a feeling that somehow seemed to come not from the arch or his own will, but that of the stone circle.

    He stepped back in shock as a voiceless voice suddenly called out to him from the clearing, as strong and vivid as it was beautiful, and he stumbled and fell to the ground in amazement. When he touched the stone, when he placed his head against it, someone or some thing had called out to him. Still shaking and not entirely sure why, he arose once more and held the arch, resting his temple against the weird runes carved deep into it and this time stayed to hear, to feel just what it was that he was meant to know. All of a sudden, images and sensations flooded his mind – beautiful and haunting visions of dancing people and smiling children from a far distant past which erupted in his head and cascaded down through his entire body like a clear and calming waterfall, and he found that for several long moments and in spite of his fear and trepidation he could not have moved if he wanted to.

    The trilithon had stood for so long, silent, alone.. waiting. For an unfathomable time the arch had endured, absorbing the hopes and dreams, the love, joy and laughter of those that came and danced before it, and those that were still yet to come. As he touched it, Eric too was overwhelmed with those same thoughts and images which burst into his consciousness in a flash of intense white light and whisked him away to a place beyond time, space and reality for all of what felt like a lifetime, before it finally let go of its hold and suddenly, somehow he knew what he needed to do.

    He drew back from the structure, lined himself up and walked almost impulsively in a wide and deliberate circle around it, halfway between the arch and the henge first once, and then twice. As he walked, the gentle breeze in the clearing became a gale, and then a roar as he finally closed a third and final circle, returning once more to face it head-on, and as he did the same winds again died down and the strange and beautiful aura that the arch had gifted him drained away completely from his body, and simply dissipated back into the clearing. For a long moment, Eric just stood before it, waiting for something to happen. He alone, and the arch inert. Just as quickly as the visions had left him, skepticism crept back into his thoughts and he began to feel awkward, and then angry for having allowed himself to fall for the lure of its mystery and his own nostalgia.

    Just as he was feeling entirely foolish and about to consider leaving the clearing, his eyes became drawn a small, dark figure peering out at him from behind the far pillar. He panicked as it moved, and for a split second feared that some small creature had come from out of the woods in all the commotion. He called out, “Hey..! Hey, come here..!” and as his cry rang-out and he cautiously made his way around the structure for a closer look, she moved from the shadows and into the moonlight to show herself.

    Eric could not control the flood of emotion then that hit him like a sledgehammer as little Julia stepped forward from the darkness and stared up at him with wide and terrified eyes. It was like a thousand dreams that he had had since that fateful night, as he tortured himself over and over again since she was taken. Still wearing the same blue and green tartan dress and little black shoes, his sister stood trembling before him, and asked, “Who are you, where’s my brother..?”

    He stood silent and in shock for several moments, unable to comprehend just what was happening. Somehow, across the infinite expanse of time the arch had returned her. By a blessing beneath the same moonlight under which she was taken so long ago, it had called out to him and he had answered. He knew, and at the same time could never know why or how it had happened, but in what was only the blink of an eye for her and a lifetime for him, somehow it had brought them back together once more. Such was its nature. She was clearly terrified, and he became acutely aware of what she must have felt and so replied, “He.. he’s gone, Julia. He had to leave.” He didn’t know what else to say.

    She too had tears in her eyes, and before he could say anything else she spoke again, “We were walking, and we got lost. We’ve been out here for ages, and.. I just want to go home. Will you take me home..?” He nearly broke down completely before every fibre of his being commanded him to stay composed, and he replied, “Yes, darling – oh yes you lovely thing.. come here, let’s go home.”

    Still shaking, he reached his hand out to her and she took it, and together they walked hand-in-hand from the clearing, out of the shadows of the past and into the silent woods beyond.

    Nancy had finished her bath hours ago, and was now curled up in front of the fire with a book while she waited for Eric to come home. He had been gone now for several hours, and although she had no real reason to worry, if she was being honest with herself the woods behind the old house were a little creepy, and made her nervous. There was something strange about how close the trees grew together, the way the wind coursed through the boughs almost like the sounds of breathing and it somehow seemed as though even daylight had a hard time breaking through between them. Shortly before midnight, she found herself considering whether to call the police when a knock finally came at the front door and she placed her book face-down on the coffee table before rising to answer. “Who is it..?” she called nervously through the glass, her hand tightly clasping the handle.

    “It’s Eric,” he replied. “I’m sorry I took so long, but I’ll explain.” She opened the door and was immediately surprised to see him standing there, holding the hand of a young girl with long, flowing red hair and who was wearing the most unusual tartan dress. She was relieved to see him, and was strangely drawn to the little girl who beamed back at her with the biggest and warmest smile she had ever seen. Her joy was contagious, and all she could do was reply through her own, “I’m glad you’re back, I was beginning to worry.. and who is this pretty little thing..?” Julia giggled and Eric reached out to take Nancy’s hand;

    “Nancy, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

    A Third Teaser Chapter from the ‘Alluvion’ Novel

    .. here is a third teaser instalment from a work in progress:

    03. The Council of Seven

    Ten or twelve yards west of the central hearth, the two approached a large meeting hall some six or seven cubits tall, fifteen wide and around twenty-five deep. Obviously the central meeting point to the settlement, Skara could not help but be awestruck at the size and craftsmanship involved in erecting such a structure. Neither the people of Nevalı Çori, or indeed Çatalhöyük for that matter had ever had need nor reason to commission or occupy such a building. He was truly impressed, and confused for not only was the structure exceedingly large compared to those of his home, but its inner walls were lined with wide shelves on which rested hundreds of strange vessels. Vessels which, unless some magic had clouded his vision, appeared themselves to be invisible and which contained strange and colourful contents. He also smelled the enticing aroma of roasting meat wafting from another building nearby, and began to think that perhaps they had taken a wrong turn.

    He raised a finger as they stood by the entryway, prepared to ask one of many questions that he already had, however the other sensed his inquiry and instead first beckoned him to enter and sit at a large stone bench in the centre of the room. “First thing’s first, valley man,” he said, “as discussed, I would introduce you to the leaders of our order to speak further of last night, before we eat. Please, join us for a short time.” One by one, six other cloaked figured made their way into the building from a discreet rear entrance, and also took up places at the bench. In spite of the cold air within the stone room, Skara began to sweat. When all were seated, a single Watcher at the far end of the table nodded to Yamnaya, prompting him to speak:

    “Swiderians, Solutreans and Gravettians,” he began, addressing several particular individuals as he did, “we today honour an oath pledged at the time of turning, and in tribute to the human mothers, fathers and benefactors who bore us, and have played a part in our order, our kinship and indeed perhaps by well-veiled mercy, our continued part in this ever-changing world. Brothers, I thank you for indulging me this meeting, and honour your contribution.” At this the other six Watchers balled their right hands into fists and without warning, smashed them down onto the bench, causing a resonating boom throughout the open space of the building and scaring Skara half to death in the process. Yamnaya went on:

    “Our world as we well know faces a grave and hastening chapter. We have been blessed with the foresight to know of what force hastens to destroy the lower lands, and close the present cycle of time in preparation for renewal. We know too that the future of our world rests not in the blood of the Ancients, dilute as it remains but in the ascension of men to the mantle of power, however this force, Usumgala would put an end to the line of men. Without man, so many thousands of years of struggle would all be for nothing.” He paused momentarily, and Skara noticed several of the hooded figures around the table nod their heads in agreement.

    “We know what must be done, Yamnaya,” said the Watcher at the head of the table, “what we must decide is how it will be carried out. We know that the men of the green valley might be saved at least in part, whether by their own volition or otherwise by our interference, when the time is right. What we must decide is whether it is worth the sacrifice of those men across the sea to focus all of our attention here, and whether if we divide our attention might we fail in securing the bloodlines of either of them. We simply lack the numbers to do both, and to do both efficiently.” Again, several of the other Watchers murmured in agreement with the speaker at the far end of the table, and one whose name was Amagi questioned why they had even bothered to meet in the first place. Yamnaya started again, and seemed to have a plan that he had not yet revealed to the rest of the council:

    “Your concerns have merit, brother Modvin,” he spoke loudly and clearly, “however this is what we have been preparing for, and today is why I have brought this man of the valley into the council at Uru-Mah. I am fully aware,” he continued, “that those of the Clovis have precious little time, if enough at all to have their own bloodlines and culture preserved, even if we are to depart immediately to travel across the seas. However I believe that it is possible. I believe that at our current progress, we are ahead of expectations for having completed this compound, and that were we to complete the necessary arrangements, we might secure the safety of those beyond the sea by trusting the men of the South with their own safehood, here in the rise and in the hills beyond.”

    Skara was beginning to develop a headache, and was understanding little if anything of what these giants of men were talking about. What were these preparations Yamnaya was referring to, and of preservation from what..? Surely this disaster was beyond their ability to defend, this had been discussed earlier. And who or what were the Clovis..? And what did he mean, travel across the seas..? He rested his head in his hands, as though the weight of their conversation had filled it beyond carriage and stared at the polished stone bench top. “What do they want from me..?” he lamented quietly to himself.

    “Brother Okmi,” started Modvin, addressing a particularly sullen Watcher to his right, “you have been charged with maintaining our fleet for time immemorial. Tell us, how long would we need to travel to cross the waters of the Western Sea..?” He turned to the figure, one who had neither muttered nor nodded approval at either man earlier in the discourse, rather had kept his strange head down and, Skara had only just noticed, his eyes fixed on the valley man. He coughed momentarily and spoke:

    “The fleet has been ready for an age,” he said slowly, not shifting his gaze from Skara, “and would make port first at the Northern Empire within a week, returning to the region we know as Caral-Supe another three days hence.”

    “And if Yamnaya’s plan were to pass, how late would we remain at Uru-Mah before losing this window to the West..?” Okmi’s countenance dropped, and his heavy brow wrinkled as he considered the question thoroughly, “We must depart the Eastern Shores within twelve days, and must not linger a day longer.” He dropped his gaze momentarily from the valley-man, and the rest of the council murmured in discourse of the situation in which they found themselves.

    “Yamnaya,” he turned back to him, “do you truly believe that the men of the valley can shoulder the burden you would place upon them..? Does this one, Skara, possess the ability to rally his kinsmen of the South to shelter within the compound at Uru-Mah..?” The remainder of the council turned then and stared at Skara, who felt as if he was sweltering in their gaze, six sets of piercing blue eyes searching deeper than flesh for what they sought to find in him. Yamnaya paused for a longer time than Skara could bear, and locked eyes with Modvin, announcing, “He is the one whom I have chosen, and him it must be. There is no-one else.” Skara felt physically ill, but felt that it was finally time for answers, and spoke:

    “Watchers of the North,” he began, his voice breaking as he tried to keep his composure, “I know not of what plans you speak, nor what it is you would have me do. I am but a simple hunter from the valley, and have only last night learned that the children of the Ancients and men do in fact still dwell in the high hills, but I beg of you, tell me what it is you want from me. I would know, and tell you whether the burden is mine to bear.” He felt foolish, and could not help but do so in the company of their order. The council murmured once more, and Yamnaya’s face dropped slightly as he realised that Skara had still failed to fully comprehend the purpose behind their invitation.

    “Our order have discovered,” began Modvin, “that you are the head of your village, the leader of the men and women of the place you call Nevalı Çori, is this correct..?” The valley man knew his answer, and said, “In our leader’s stead, I am the head of our village, yes..” to more murmurs from the council, which prompted Skara to stiffen, “and until such time as our chieftain returns from the capital in two moons hence, I am the one who leads.” Modvin continued, “Then, Skara of the valley” he softened, somewhat, “what we offer to you and your kin might be your only hope for enduring the events which those stars have prophesied.” Modvin raised himself from the stone bench, and using his hands to gesticulate, continued: “This settlement, this compound to which you have been invited has been prepared by us, the Watchers so that man may survive the catastrophe which threatens to destroy us all. These walls, these hearths and megaliths have all been engineered by those secrets passed-down to us by our forebears who, in their greatness even so many centuries ago foresaw the coming of the dragon which is of seven tails so that men might persist upon the Earth long after the flames of a great burning have subsided.”

    Skara was finally beginning to comprehend the enormity of the responsibilities that Yamnaya had promised him, and the sacrifices that the strange men of the order were making on his behalf. Stunned and not quite sure of what to say in reply, he sat wide-eyed and said nothing, until Yamnaya spoke again:

    “Skara, the sands of time run short (a reference which he failed to recognise, but understood in context), and there can be no delay if we are to save your people from annihilation. We have built this city so that you and your kin might hide from the dragon, and return to the world once the peril has passed you by.” He turned and spoke directly to Skara, his pale blue eyes staring directly into his, searching for solidarity, “Can you rally the men and women of your kin to take shelter here, before the new Moon rises..? Can you save the ones you love from the endless Winter, where our forebears failed theirs..?”

    Skara’s head was spinning. The scale of what was to come to pass, the thought of losing forever the life he and his family had built at Nevalı Çori and the monumental task of convincing those he had grown to call his kin to likewise leave their world and everything they knew behind was impossible. Impossible, but if what these strange men were saying were true, the only way to avert certain disaster. He stood and paused for a long moment, looking around him at the strange faces of the Watchers of the council, one by one before replying with the only answer that a rational man could give;

    “Aye, and damned if this is the truth.” He looked down at the cold stone in front of him, and then back to meet Yamnaya’s gaze, “I will return with my kin to your compound, and if it is the only way, I will bring the villagers out from their homes also, and to your walls for safety. I will do this, because it seems.. that there is no other way.” His reply exhausted him to say, and prompted solemn nods from all of the council of seven before him, even Okmi who for the first time broke his stare completely from the valley man to the stone bench below. He dreaded already the task ahead, and doubted deeply that any would follow him. And why should they..? If not for his own experiences, of seeing the Watchers themselves for the first time in an age and the awesome architecture of their compound he would not have believed it either. He sighed deeply, before asking one last question of the council; “So what now must be done, where do we go from here..?”

    “Valley man,” boomed Yamnaya with a broad smile, moving toward the rear entrance to the hall, “come, and I will show you the way.”

    Skara stayed amongst the Watchers at Uru-Mah until well into the night, at last sharing a hearty meal and speaking at length with the council, and learning of the secrets which promised to keep the compound safe from harm following the wrath of the dragon. Though he understood very little of their lengthy explanations, he left convinced that theirs was the only refuge against the coming event, and after a heavy meal and a restful night’s sleep beside a warm hearth, he was bade farewell by Yamnaya, Modvin and the rest of the council early the next morning.

    Before he departed the plateau, Yamnaya gifted him a pouch containing several strange vials and ointments, warning him, “These elements I gift to you are given to insure against any who might wish to deny you safe passage to your village, and your return to the plateau within the fortnight. They are varied in their uses; some merely for the healing and restoration of one’s constitution,” he gestured towards several lighter-coloured jars to one side of the pouch, “and others that are.. less stable.” He indicated several round glass containers without lids, designed it would seem to be thrown rather than opened, or their contents removed.

    “This,” he removed one small and almost perfectly spherical vial, clear and seemingly containing of nothing but air, “this is perhaps the most volatile but powerful of our elements, and should be treated with due respect. Much of the splendour of the great cities of old is owed to it, and without it our ancestors might never have had the ability to construct an empire on the scale that they did. Should you ever find yourself somehow trapped, and the only way of escape to move through solid stone.. you will do well to remember to use this. Of it, I can say no more that you would understand.” The vial felt extremely heavy in Skara’s hands, despite its size and something in the back of his mind told him that this should be kept close at hand, for whatever unknown need might arise.

    Yamnaya then bid Skara good luck, reciting a swift prayer in a dialect that was completely alien to him and directed him south from the compound. Skara left through a stone arch at the northern edge of the plateau, and marched with a determined resolve across the grassy plain, through the quarry and out over the ridge of the clearing. He made haste to return to the path that he and Andar had walked the morning before and quickly but carefully made his way down the hillside, dodging and weaving through the thickets and low-lying scrub and eventually arriving at the hillock by the campsite once more. The descent had taken several hours, and by the time he neared the campsite it was already well past mid-morning. “They must surely believe me dead by now,” he mused, “or else taken elsewhere by the Watchers in the hills. I hope against hope they stayed, delayed as I am..”

    As he made his way over the crest, he was suddenly stopped dead in his tracks by the fearsome war-cry of a dozen raised voices, yelling loudly from the far ends of spears pointed directly at him. He froze, startled for a moment before recognising that it was just the rest of his hunting party that faced him, wild-eyed and with their bodies and faces painted with the fresh blood of slaughtered game, as if they were prepared to meet in battle with the men of the hills. He immediately started to laugh, in spite of himself as they looked completely ridiculous; hunters and gatherers, grown men with crude weapons in their hands and poorly applied war-paint. Upon noticing that he was laughing, the rest of the party looked around at each other’s faces, and they too began to laugh. No-one could have said they looked any more threatening than a group of filthy children, faces smeared with food and hardly at all frightening. There were however several quiet sighs of relief at seeing Skara return alone.

    After several moments, Andar was the first to speak: “Brother, o brother, you gave us quite the fright, you fool..! Where have you been, and what have you seen across the flat.. and what is that silly looking sack you bring, tied to your waist..?” He pointed at the pouch provided to him by Yamnaya, which Skara hastily tucked away into his cloak and out of sight. “Never you mind that,” he replied, “I would tell you of the men of the plateau upon our journey back for I am weary of this travel. Here I am returned and in good health, let us leave this place and return to our kin. That is of course if any of you have had the time to actually hunt while not playing dress-ups in my absence..!” Such a challenge might have raised anger on any other occasion, but no sooner had he finished speaking than the group parted in front of him to reveal four enormous auroch that the group had dragged to the camp late in the evening before, already tied and staked to be carried back to the village.

    “By Enki and Anu..!” he exclaimed, “I knew the herd could not have moved far from the valley. This is more than would last the village for days – who of you is responsible for felling these magnificent beasts..?” The two sinewy brothers Gidri and Gizzal stepped forward, backs arched and chests proudly puffed-out as they stood to claim their kill. “We tracked the herd just west of the plateau, and struck as they stopped to drink at the meltwater where several streams met,” started Gidri with Gizzal, the younger of the two continuing, “We struck-down one of them each and dazed by the afternoon sunlight, two more were slain before the rest ran away. We found the others and brought them from the Eastern slopes to help move them.”

    The two were clearly proud of themselves, both knowing that as the kill was theirs, two of the choicest shares would be given to the Temen household upon their return. Skara nodded his head in appreciation, confirming, “You two will indeed be given the hind and belly of these beasts, so as you choose. There is however one problem I see with your choosing to slaughter four of these creatures for a party our size. How by Ninurta’s grace are we expected to carry them all back..? We’d need twice our number..!”

    They all laughed, knowing well that only two could be returned to the village among the thirteen hunters and began butchering one of the remaining two to cook and eat their fill before departing, so as to waste as little as possible. The final untouched auroch they presented to their Gods upon a pyre in sacrificial thanks for providing once more the game they sought, and with which they might feed their families, at least for a short time.

    The group cleared their camp, packed up their weapons and utensils and departed south again. The march home would be a slow and dangerous one, as not only were they severely handicapped, carrying two one-ton creatures between them but also the threat from raiders and wild-men on the roads through the valley was all too real. As always, the duty rested on Skara to raise the group’s spirits and momentum as they marched, and he decided to tell them part of what had transpired across the plateau, careful only to speak of the Watchers and their city and not of the impending doom that called him there. He spoke at length of their strange features, the structures of the compound and of Yamnaya’s visit to him the night before, explaining that they had merely desired to make contact with the men of the valley, in the hopes of making trade at a later time.

    “Trade, with those freaks..?” said Andar, spitting in the grass as he did, “They’ve slipped you something in your wine if you’d even consider that. There’s nothing in the world those half-breed monsters – if that’s even what they were – have to offer us. If everything we’ve been told is true, we have absolutely no reason to return to that god-forsaken place, ever.. unless with warriors from the capital to drive them back into the mountains..!” He cursed and mumbled a great deal more about old tales and bad ideas, before adding, “You should have come back to the hunt with the rest of us, rather than wasting a full day and night entertaining those beasts of men.”

    Skara wished his brother was right, and by his reaction to talk of the Watchers decided that it would be a monumental task convincing anyone of the valley to return with him to the plateau. He knew he had to figure out an angle by which he could convince his family that what the Watchers had told him was the truth, and if he could convince his family at least, he could avoid returning to Yamnaya empty-handed. For he knew their time was short, and that the stakes could not be set any higher.

    The group reached the village at sunset of that same evening, entering the central plaza amidst cheers from the women and children left behind as they caught sight of the massive creatures that the party had brought back with them. Everyone there knew the value of the auroch. Unlike the bison or gazelle, its hide was extremely tough and thick and could be used not only for clothing but as a strong leather to seal the wooden houses of the village. Its fat would be used for many purposes by the villagers including weatherproofing and the treatment of clothing and the meat was of a far greater quantity and more enjoyable quality than any smaller game in the area. Their brothers, fathers and husbands had done well this time, and they knew it, beaming as they welcomed them back.

    The kill was placed as always in the central plaza, for the first butchery to take place and the larger portions of the animals to be divided. The men of the hunting party returned to their homes and families and Skara, tackled to the ground on-sight by Harna and Kirti as soon as they saw him took his children back to their mother and himself to a well-earned wash and rest. Sura as always welcomed her husband back with a strong embrace, and for the longest time that he would since remember, Skara enjoyed their company long into a warm and peaceful night at their humble home in the valley. Whatever the coming days might have brought, the memory of those nights spent together as a family were and would remain the best of his days.

    The next morning, the Tau family awoke to the loud buzz of friends and neighbours outside their home as they ran and conversed loudly of visitors from the West. The sound of the footfalls of many heavy feet marching into the village from the open road to the capital roused Skara and Sura from their slumber, the children having already awoken and left through the doorway to greet the visitors and they shook the sleep from their own eyes to join them. “Who could this be,” he thought, “to arrive so early in the day, having marched through the night..?” Sura must have been thinking the same thing, asking of him, “He-Xur is not due to return to us for another two Moons, is this not what was decided..?” She looked at him with worrisome eyes, as if he might have had an answer. They both hurriedly clothed themselves in robes and leather shoes and made their way out of their home and on in the direction of the Western gate to see what all the fuss was about. Skara had hidden the sack provided to him by Yamnaya in a safe compartment underneath their house, however had kept one distinct vial with him since their encounter, hidden deep in the folds of his robes. As they rounded a corner, the two of them ran smack bang into a crowd of villagers that had also gathered.

    It was in fact He-Xur who had returned to the village a great deal earlier than expected. Their leader had arrived in full dress, sporting a long and flowing cloak and ceremonial headdress, as brilliant upon his head as it was pompous and had brought with him several dozen representatives from Çatalhöyük. Those with him looked more like soldiers than Skara was used to seeing in the valley and he was surprised and concerned at what had brought their chieftain home at such short notice, and why he had returned with such a show of force. He-Xur nodded in recognition at Skara as he passed their quarter in rank and made for the direction of the plaza. Skara bid his family to follow, and they and all of their friends and neighbours made their way behind the troupe to welcome them and discover what all of this meant.

    The party entered the plaza in formation, and the soldiers surrounding He-Xur parted to the north and south of the square, holding order while the leader of their group took to a raised podium at its center, and addressed the smiling and cheering crowd for the first time since his departure more than a month earlier.

    A Short, Sad Story for a Dark and Stormy Night

    ‘CLOSURE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

    Martin threw his apartment door open with all his might and tossed his briefcase recklessly across the living room. It bounced off of the back of his tattered brown corduroy couch and opened, spilling its contents – pens, papers and wrappers out onto the floor and knocked a half glass of water off his coffee table, which smashed as it fell. He swore viciously before entering and slamming the door shut behind him, and made his way to the broom closet in the hallway.

    Things just hadn’t been the same for him since she left, and each day seemed to bring another trial or disappointment, another parking fine to cover or registration to pay. He swept up the broken glass from the floor and threw it in the kitchen bin, collecting a beer from the fridge on his way back as he went to slump on the sofa and switch on the TV, just as he had done every other night that week. He only stayed there for about an hour and didn’t even finish his bottle – he had a splitting headache which was set-off again by the flickering light and the events of the day which weighed heavy on his mind.

    Martin had been suspended again from his job as a client representative for a large pharmaceutical company. It was only Wednesday, and he had arrived at the office late for the fourth morning in two weeks, unshaven and still half-drunk from the night before. He had chosen to take refuge in drink since things with Sarah had ended, and his constant mid-week benders soon caught up with him. “Who can blame me..?” He had thought to himself, “Turning up each and every morning to the same dead faces, squeezing budgets thanklessly for every last dollar they can add to their salaries. Who needs it, this is good – I’m glad I’m gone.”

    He turned off the TV and tipped the rest of his beer into the sink, setting the empty bottle up on the window ledge with all of the others. As he did, his eyes wandered across to a photo of the two of them; him and Sarah and he picked it up and stared at it for a long while. The picture was taken several years earlier at a time when everything was still new, and only love seemed to matter. They were still just kids when they first met, and were each other’s first true love. He smiled for a moment before fresher memories prevailed – memories of screaming, crying and fighting.

    The two had been together for almost four years, quickly falling deeply in love and spending hours simply just talking or walking hand in hand along the many roads and boardwalks by the quay near to where they lived. Their relationship was intense and before they knew it, they were moving-in together. He had a great job, and she seemed happy.

    He still couldn’t understand how everything had fallen apart so quickly. It almost seemed as though one minute they were inseparable, alone against the world and completely content and the next, they were shouting at each other, screaming at each other accusations of infidelity, threats and mistrust.. like they had suddenly become two completely different people.

    Martin had loved her deeply, still loved her deeply. It had been nearly three months since she had packed her bags and left, and it felt as though his entire world had fallen apart. He was too self-righteous to follow after her of course, too proud to take a knee and apologise for everything he’d said, everything he’d done. All it might have taken was to hold her close, look deep into her beautiful green eyes and be the bigger man. Instead he simply stayed and watched her go.

    He put the picture down, tears now in his eyes and took a good hard look at himself in the dark reflection of the kitchen window. It was black outside, and raining. His white collared shirt was crumpled, and slowly morphing into a pale shade of grey. Sarah had always taken care of the laundry, and he never cared to learn. His face was a mess of thick, dark stubble retained from over the weekend which he hadn’t bothered to shave, and two dark circles sat under his eyes, a testament to many restless nights spent tossing and turning in anger and reflection.

    After several minutes Martin turned away, pulling a cigarette and lighter from his pocket and sparking it up. He walked over and sat at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. He had thought that things would get better, that he’d land on his feet and maybe even find someone else. Sure, there were plenty of women out there and he was a young, successful guy – why not..? He had soon however found himself taking home friends of friends and girls from the local strip, none of which he even felt the slightest desire to see again once they were through. It made sense in theory but for him, there was and would only ever be one girl, one true love. And he had let her go.

    In his ups and downs following their breakup, Martin had begun to collect ingredients almost subconsciously for what had on several occasions seemed the only solution for the crippling pain he had grown to feel. Through contacts in his industry, he had purchased a small container of potassium cyanide crystals, which could have been easily dissolved into any drink, resulting in a quick and relatively painless cocktail. “Like slipping into a batch of ice-water,” his contact had said. He should have known better and wasn’t often given to such dark thoughts, but on this night he found everything to hit home all at once.

    He knew that she would never take him back, not after everything that he had said. He had a sharp tongue when he was angry or upset, and took a small amount of pride in his ability to wound others when the need arose. But never her. The company was deliberating whether to let him go, he knew this. His productivity and success on the job had been on a gradual decline since the separation, and he no longer cared for his job nor the people he worked with. In fact, as he sat and stared into space he had difficulty remembering the last time he cared about anything. He was growing numb, empty and bitter, as though he was disconnecting from the rest of the world.

    “I’m just so damn tired..” he said softly to himself.

    Dark thoughts filled the emptiness within him and he dragged himself up from the table and wandered out to the laundry, where he opened the cabinet beneath the sink and pulled out a bottle. Potassium cyanide.. tasteless, odourless. He closed the cupboard and brought the bottle back to the kitchen, where he pulled another beer from the fridge before sitting back down at the table, eyeing the two of them off for several minutes. He suddenly felt extremely cold, and his eyes struggled to adjust to the dim light of the living room. “Do it,” a voice called-out in the back of his mind, “jump before it crashes.. there’s nothing left for you here except ruin.”

    His heart was racing. He had considered doing this hundreds of times before, but now finally felt like he was truly at the end of his rope. Just as he was reaching for the smaller bottle, his hands shaking he was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Fuck,” he said aloud, the noise startling him. He brushed the small bottle quickly into the drawer at the end of the table and closed it, got up and walked to the door, mumbling as he did. “I swear to God, this had better be important..” He reached up and undid the lock at the top and clicked the handle over, before opening the door and speaking through his cigarette, “Yeah, what is it..?”

    It was Sarah. He couldn’t believe his eyes. She was standing there, a small purse slung about her left shoulder as she stood smiling a nervous smile, looking as beautiful then as the day he met her. As beautiful as every memory he had of her. His cigarette dropped from his mouth, a long stem of ash bursting onto his shirt as it fell to the floor and he quickly moved to squash it with his foot to prevent it from burning the carpet. She smiled weakly and said, “Hi Marty, can I come in..?”

    He was dumbfounded, and only just had the wits to mumble, “Hey yeah – sure, come on in,” before gesturing and moving aside to let her pass. What in God’s name was she doing here..? He hadn’t seen or spoken to her since she had left, and as the two didn’t share any mutual friends he had no idea that she had even thought of stopping by. He invited her to take a seat in the living room, and cleared away the pile of papers from his suitcase that he had thrown onto the second seat. “What on earth does she want..?” he thought to himself.

    Sarah took-off her purse and sat down on the sofa, looking around the room as she did. They had shared the apartment for nearly two years, and she was clearly surprised to see the state that he had let it get to; clothes and documents were strewn about the coffee table, plates, bowls and dishes sat unwashed in the kitchen and the carpet had clearly not been vacuumed in weeks, nor the ashtray on the side table emptied. He sparked up another cigarette, and offered her one which she gladly took and thanked him for. After several moments, she was the first to speak:

    “It’s good to see you,” she started, “I was meaning to drop by earlier, but things have been a little hectic. I’m glad to see you’re keeping the place tidy,” she joked, giving him a faint smile. Of everything that he missed about her, her smile was definitely the hardest to live without. She had two dimples either side of her mouth that deepened every time, and when she flashed her perfect teeth he felt like he would melt. He stared at her for a few seconds, taking an exaggerated drag of his cigarette before realising that he hadn’t replied and was beginning to make her uncomfortable.

    “Sorry about that, I’ve been pretty busy myself. If I knew you were coming..” He took another drag to calm his nerves, and so did she. He continued, “How have you been..? It feels like.. months.” He felt awkward and unsure of what exactly to say, not expecting to see her ever again, let alone tonight. “I’ve been well,” she replied, “Work is going well, and I’ve been sharing a room with Felicity, on the other side of town. Keeping busy. How about you, I’ve asked around and no-one says they’ve seen you in weeks. Are you still working with..” She searched her memory and couldn’t recall the name of the company he worked for, but Martin could not fault her for that. It was enough that she had put up with his stories of his colleagues and the stresses of his job when they were together without remembering every little detail.

    “Harris Davison, yeah. I’m still there, same old same old,” he said, drily. “It’s great to see you again, you’re looking.. you’re looking great.” He managed a weak smile. “What are you here for, is there something you’ve left behind, or..?” He immediately regretted saying this, although he wanted desperately to know what she had dropped by for after all this time. He just didn’t want to give her the impression that she was not welcome, and chastised himself. “Idiot, just let her speak..!” He thought to himself.

    “Actually, I just came by to talk,” she responded, taking another long drag of her cigarette, “about us.” Martin couldn’t believe it. His heart raced and his mind wandered as he considered what “about us” might have meant. Did she want to try to patch things up..? Or maybe drive the wedge in deeper – he knew what some women were like. He couldn’t believe however that Sarah would go to such an effort out of the blue just to try to make things worse. He was starting to sweat, and ashed his cigarette before replying as confidently as he could, “Okay, cool – yeah let’s do that.”

    The two then talked at length about their relationship, about the problems that they had faced and the way they had handled them. Both he and Sarah expressed their regret at how things had played out, Martin conceding that he had approached the stresses of his job poorly, and how earlier experiences had resulted in the immature way in which he dealt with her friends and co-workers. Of the jealousies and insecurities which caused him to lose his temper and to take it out on her. She too apologised for her distance and explained how she would react to his moods by simply walking out and leaving him alone to cool off, and how she had learnt so much about herself in their time apart.

    They spoke for hours, well into the night as the rain picked up outside and flashes of distant lightning from the building storm illuminated the edges of his windows from the corner of his eye. All the while they talked, Martin felt the shadows in the room growing darker. He was tired, supposing that a major hangover and a lack of decent sleep was causing his vision to cloud and he thought nothing of it. As the conversation went on, he began to feel as though maybe, just maybe they were on the road to working out their differences, and he started to relax and even to smile, laughing as they began to recall more pleasant memories of their time together.

    Sarah was driving the conversation now, and it became apparent to Martin that the reason for her stopping by was not just because she was nostalgic, or looking for the closure that most women seem to strive for. She had genuinely missed him, loved him and was testing to see if they could once again make things work. He could not have been happier, and talked as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He also began to feel a little self-conscious – he was unkempt, exhausted and still wearing the same crumpled shirt that he had on when he was suspended from work only hours earlier. He stopped their conversation to say as much, and asked Sarah if she wouldn’t mind if he popped around the corner for a quick shower, before they continued. “It’s been a long day, and I feel like an animal.” he said.

    “It’s okay, Marty,” she smiled, “I’m here now, and I’m not going anywhere.” He smiled back, ashed another cigarette and made his way into the hallway and to the bathroom, his heart still beating at a hundred miles an hour as he searched the linen closet for a fresh towel. As he stood in the hallway however, he again felt the same claustrophobic feeling that he had had earlier, as though the shadows in the corners of the floor and ceiling were growing, and the dim light from the crack of the bathroom door slowly fading to grey.

    He was uneasier this time, and the feeling was much more intense than before. He tried to shake it off, and marched quickly into the bathroom where he turned on all the lights and the heat lamp and took a long, hot shower. It was mid-Winter, and even with the heating in his apartment on its highest setting he felt like he was freezing to death.

    He leapt out of the shower and quickly dried himself, pausing only to swish a measure of mouth wash around and spray deodorant before rushing back to his bedroom to rummage around for clean clothes. This took a lot longer than it should have, but he found a pair of fresh jeans and a T-shirt and returned to the living room, relieved to find that she was still there, sitting on their couch and reading the TV guide with her two slender legs folded up beneath her.

    He sat down beside her once more, smiling as he did. As he leaned in closer, about to speak he felt once more the vivid sensation of fading light and a chill which struck him to the core. He shivered visibly and reached for a heavy woollen jumper that was draped over the arm of the couch. “Are you okay..?” Her eyes seemed to ask. “I’m fine, just a little chilly,” he said, “the body corporate haven’t fixed the boilers downstairs, so the heating is still damn near useless. I don’t need to tell you that, though.” She smiled and he leaned in, and talk between the two began again more intimately than before.

    “I really do miss you.” She started, “Ever since we broke it off, it’s all I think about. I’ve tried picturing myself moving on, and I just can’t.” She was tearing up as she spoke, finally letting her guard down completely and telling him exactly how she felt. Martin was moved too, and replied, “I miss you too, Sarah. I just can’t do it without you. I’ve tried, and I’ve failed.. everything just seems to be getting worse and worse the longer I’m without you.”

    He stopped for a second, considering whether it was time to completely let his guard down too, and then decided just to go ahead and say it. “I still love you. I always have, and I always will. I’m so sorry for everything.” She cried, and he tried his best not to. “God, I love you, Marty – I’ll never leave you again“ They finally embraced, and as they did Martin could almost feel all of the pain, the negativity and the hopelessness of the past few months leaving his body and evaporating into thin air.

    He held her for several long minutes as she shook, still crying now but crying tears of happiness. He too trembled, having dreamt so often of just holding her one more time. As he looked out toward the far window where the lightning flashed, a crack of thunder boomed throughout the apartment and he immediately felt a piercing chill rack his body, his trembling quickly becoming a long and uncontrollable shiver.

    She immediately noticed this, sniffed and wiped her eyes, asking, “What’s wrong, are you okay..?” He wasn’t sure right away what to say, and as he moved back, still holding her he noticed that although she was right there, the shadows in the room had suddenly grown so powerful that he could barely make out anything past a couple of feet around them.

    Something was definitely wrong, and he looked at Sarah as he continued to shiver, trying to speak. He tried to tell her that he felt like he was suddenly freezing to death, that something was seriously wrong, but the words wouldn’t come out. She just looked at him with a deep concern, and after trying again to speak he realised that he was in fact speaking – he just couldn’t hear a sound. She too tried to communicate, and although he could just make out that her lips were moving, he could no longer hear her words.

    The shadows in the room were enveloping everything, and what little light remained had become wan and grey. It was as though he was somehow suddenly disconnecting from reality, and he became more frightened than he had ever felt in his entire life. “No.. this can’t be happening, not now..!” his mind screamed. He tried to reach out to touch her face one last time just as his sight failed him completely, and as she was mouthing one final sentence that he couldn’t quite hear, he was plunged quickly and completely into an icy black nothingness.

    Thunder cracked and the doctors screamed at each other to fire-up the defibrillator as Martin finally went into cardiac arrest. It was unusual for a patient that had succumb to potassium cyanide poisoning to last as long as he had, death normally coming quite quickly but they assumed that his ex-girlfriend finding his body and calling an ambulance so quickly had more than likely bought him a few more hours.

    He was lying face-down on the kitchen floor of his apartment when she had used her spare key to enter – she knocked at the door for several minutes after hearing him fall inside as she arrived, and had stayed with him ever since. He lay comatose for hours following the event, and Sarah had stayed right by his side the entire time, talking, crying and pleading with him to wake up.

    No sooner had those words passed her lips, “I love you, Marty – I’ll never leave you again” before he finally let go of his grip, and fell into oblivion.