The claustrophobic stairwells that led Hamazi and I deeper into Mourngard’s mountain tunnels were soon filled with the unmistakable pounding rhythm of hooves. This was unlike the sound of any cavalry parade I had ever heard; every stomp was in a painstaking rhythm, beating out like the pounding of tribal goblin drums. Hamazi halted me, and peered around a corner turn in the stairs.
“Manling,” he said without malice. “This place is the Menagerie. It is the sole reason you yet live. Everything our Lord undertook to get you, keep you, protect you, comes down to this. It is… not as you imagine it. I have read your works. It is a place consecrated to the Dark Father. It is a place of honour, of worship, and of spiritual politics. You must understand. Ask no questions. Give no commands. And, before you do anything… bow.”
He stepped down into the shining golden light that poured from the stone doorway at the foot of the stair. At last, the heat, noise and smell all made sense.
In the heart of the great basalt odeon before me was a great bull’s head, from the mouth and nose of which poured molten lava in a shining stream. I know little of volcanoes, but this seemed unnatural; it had no black surface, was perfectly smooth and of a colour closer to bronze than any other. Under that stream of lava stood an enormous masked beast, which resembled nothing so much as a vast, muscled centaur. Molten rock poured from the bull’s mouth down into a pool, out of which jutted a basalt dais on which it stood. Before the pool was a wide, risen stage, surrounded by levelled rings of audience. The burning rock cascaded harmlessly off the beast’s greyish skin and hide. Just as Enmerkar and Hamazi, it had an enormous beard of coal-black ringlets, but in his there were no pendants or jewels. Instead a triangular necklace of brass scales, like a mail, hung beneath it towards the beast’s navel. Its arms were raised. At once I understood why Enmerkar had asked me over and over about beastmen and centigors. Or at least - I thought I did. Reader… I assure you, I was nowhere near even the slightest inkling of his motivations.
Around the odeon’s rings were massed perhaps thirty, perhaps fifty smaller bearded centaurs. Dotted in that throng were larger ones, closer in size to the great beast in the lava. Their faces were more fearsome and their horns more pronounced. By contrast, as I looked around, the greater mass of the creatures were sized like a healthy farmer’s bull. Their - reader to this day I still know not how to describe - their torsos, that is to say the upper, non-bestial elements that supported the head, were essentially sized like that of a dwarf. Put simply - they were dwarven centaurs, with the body of a bull and the body of a dwarf fused together into the same kind of unholy abomination as is seen among the beastmen. Their dwarf halves seemed much less mutated than I would have expected, and most wore a form of presumably ceremonial attire, fully clothing those parts of them that resembled dawi. In the shock of thoughts rushing through me, I wondered if they were creations of some grim surgery rather than “true” centaurs, but as Hamazi had warned me - and Ashirk before him - I keep my questions to myself. The truth of their provenance would soon be made clear to me in the strangest of ways.
Every centaur in the odeon was rhythmically pounding its hooves in a steady drumbeat. I’ll spare you any attempt to communicate it in detail but rest assured it haunts my dreams to this day. Some held wicked scythes, mauls and poleaxes, pounding these against the greyish rock. Others beat their chests with clenched fists. The sounds grew louder and louder as the vast beast in the lava began to chant some esoteric language deep from within its thick throat. Shapes seemed to slowly emerge from the flowing lava, hands, swords, serpents, faces. I felt the same scratching in my head as when the voice had whispered to me twice before, but if that had been the sound of one buzzing fly, this was a hornet’s nest. The pounding, the scratching, the shapes - it reached a crescendo - the great bull-centaur was covered head to hoof in glowing lava - and then -
A vast pillar of flame engulfed the centre of the odeon’s stage, a few feet before the lava pool. A face resembling the visor of a knight’s helm leered out from the heart of it, bobbing obscenely as if hanging upon a broken neck, tossed by unseen winds. Great steel clawed hands burst forth from the right and left of the pillar, at the end of vast burning arms. Iron horns sprouted from the top of the mask, and slowly the shape of a vast hunched torso condensed from cloudy lines of ash, hanging suspended in the pillar. The mighty beast in the lava bellowed, a guttural cry of pain and fury, and it sounded for a moment as though his magic had given way - as though his flesh was truly burning under the stream of molten rock.
At once, in a blinding flash of light, the lava that coated him turned to stone. The pillar of fire flared out of existence, and in its place the burning creature hung in the air, fiery limbs condensing into the shape of thickly corded muscles marked with veins of black ash.
The fire-spirit formed and reformed, dissipating, seeming to struggle, until it took the shape of the upper body of the vast centaur. For a moment it hung still, a flaming replica in front of the newly shaped statue. The flames rippled. It seemed the fiery daemon was trying to take a different shape, but was being held in the form of the enormous centaur by some malign force. I felt the sharply held breath of the gathered assembly of centaurs. Even Hamazi seemed frozen in place.
Suddenly, a crack appeared in the solid rock that encased the centaur. It spread from the top of one enormous bicep, at first agonisingly slow, then faster and faster until it exploded outwards. Lethal shards of granite flew feet into the air before flaring out into ashes, burned by unseen fire. The centaur roared again, and the flaming daemon mirrored its every move, a wicked mouth opening in its steel mask and screeching with a grinding wail.
The centaur’s greyish skin was almost completely gone, leaving raw, pulsating muscle and sinew exposed to the air. It leapt from the dais in the pool of lava, blood and grit spraying outward, hooves hitting the steady granite of the odeon’s stage, and plunged directly towards the fiery shape. It grabbed the thing’s horns, pulled it around - even as fiery hands grabbed the raw flesh of its cheeks - and bellowed into the mask:
The daemon wailed an otherworldly scream, and the fire seemed to fall limp, though it kept its shape. The centaurs roared in rapturous approval. It seemed their hero, bloodied and skinless, had triumphed. Behind him, lava began to pour steadily from the bull’s head once more.
Two of the larger, more bestial centaurs approached him and gingerly led his bloody form away. They seemed well practiced in this art, and unconcerned by his skinless muscles. When he had left the odeon and the crowd began to disperse, at that moment Hamazi walked slowly up to the top of the odeon stairs nearest our doorway, and knelt silently. I followed him and did the same.
A third bestial centaur approached.
“I come in the name of the great Lord of this place, Hashut’s chosen, Sorcerer-Prophet of the Black Tower, Enmerkar. He bids me present you this slave, learned in the arts of the West, to assist in the Menagerie.”
“The Taur’ruk is indisposed, lackey. He will be indisposed for some time. I will not allow a spy into our midst without his permission.”
“A most inspiring sight, to be sure, Blessed One. Mar-tu is beloved of the Great Bull.”
“You dare to watch our rituals from the shadows? You presume much, grizal. I could take your head for that alone. What does your master think we need this wretch for? Do not give me your excuses. I already see. Hashut guides my thoughts, grizal. Can your master yet say the same?”
Hamazi was silent.
“The Taur’ruk will not countenance your presence. An umgi slave defiling our fane is blasphemy enough. He needs no beardling escort. Begone. We will send the umgi back to your master alive… if that is what the Great Bull wills.”
Hamazi rose, and backed slowly towards the stairs. I stayed rooted to the spot, my rags soaked with sweat. Once again, I knew not whether it was the stifling heat or the tremulous fear.