The beast before me sat motionless on the obsidian slab at the heart of this vile room. I was colder than I had been for weeks, the oppressive heat of the constant fires and lava flows suddenly a distant memory. I was alone with my apparent patient, and slowly approached him. He will not awaken, Anshan had said. I reached out a hand to place it on the beast’s flank…
It was cold to the touch, like the hide of a perfectly preserved corpse. I could feel a slow, steady beating of a mighty heart within , but it did not so much as twitch where I touched it. Supposing that it were any other animal in my care, what would I do?
I began gingerly to inspect the dwarven part first. Tusks, of course, bone-white but blunted at the tip. A carefully ornamented beard. The same broad, wide-spaced eyes as Enmerkar, but a much less prominent nose. No signs of blood, obstructed breathing, bruising. No obvious cranial damage that could yield a comatose state. The picture of dwarven health - a younger one. The more I looked at him, the more I felt I was seeing Enmerkar as he might have looked in his prime, square-shouldered, barrel-chested, powerful. But this yielded no wisdom. I turned back to his bestial aspect, and immediately hissed an oath. How could I have missed this when I touched his flank?
Evenly spaced on either side were two raw, bloody wounds. No - not wounds. Bone seemed to be rupturing from the flesh? Slowly, like the emergence of a tooth. Not just any bone - spiny, curved strands set to spread into three or four arcs… these looked for all the world like the beginnings of a pair of wings, erupting from the creature’s back. The pain would have been excruciating.
I felt at once this was no malady of my kind. At last, I thought, the fascination with sick beasts seemed to fall into place. The centaur was ailing. It was undergoing some sort of change, deep here in the obsidian. But the outcome was in doubt. The coma would alarm anyone. How long had he been like this? And how was he fed? How was he kept from starving? Was he fed at all…?
This stank of the blackest witchcraft. I thought I could see now some of why the Sorcerer-Prophet had had me abducted at such great expense, but I could also see the path to my death stretch out before me. These were not matters for a journeyman zookeeper of Altdorf. They were barely matters for a wizard of Ghur; these were matters for a witch-hunter, a barrel of gunpowder, and a match.
No sooner had I this thought than Anshan appeared from out of the gloom.
“You have seen what is to be seen, manling. Now, you will leave this place. We go to the Taur’ruk, and then you will leave the Fleshforge.”
The Taur’ruk remained in his greenish pool, his skin looking somewhat more healed. Given the rate I had calculated in my head, I thought it would be perhaps a day before his skin was fully regrown. An impressive feat of witchcraft. Surely for one such as him, my scratchings in the dirt were irrelevancies? Could he not simply place the patient carefully in this same tub and let the healing magic do it’s work?
“So, umgi, you have seen what your master bade you see. You have doubtless deduced whatever western barbarism best fits. I command you: you shall not touch him again. Lugalbanda is undergoing a trial of our faith. I think you have seen,” he said, gesturing to the exposed muscles of his chest, “such trials are not for the likes of you to meddle with.”
Ask him about your dream, came the reverberating whisper. This time, it held me in a tight grip, a scratching no longer - it tore through whatever willpower I had mustered before, and ripped claws of speech straight on to my tongue.
“Great one, I dreamed I was gored by a vast and terrible bull. I dreamed I was sealed into a black helm that seared my flesh. I dreamed I was sacrificed in the maw of the great volcano above us now. The Prophet forbade me to speak of these dreams. I ask you now: what do they mean?”
There was total silence. Even the greenish waters ceased to ripple. The room seemed airless. Then I felt the air behind me ripple with Anshan’s impending movement - but the Taur’ruk raised his hand faster, and a wave of force flew from it, knocking the centaur’s arm back -
“You dare ask a question of me?” Mar-tu spat. “What possesses a worthless manling to ask truths of the priests of Hashut? What possesses a worthless manling to steal the prophetic dreams of the Great Bull?”
“I mean no disrespect, great one. No magic lives within me. I am a vessel for such signs, nothing more.”
I felt the weight of Anshan’s hateful gaze, but something made the Taur’ruk hold him yet.
“You are touched by Hashut, manling. I loathe that it is so, but it is so. Such dreams are given to the Blessed by the Great Bull. For even a dawi to see such things would be a high honour. Whatever Enmerkar was planning to do with you is irrelevant now. You are a tool of the Father of Darkness. I cannot stay his will. So… I must consider this. For now, speak to me of Lugalbanda.”
“He… he appears to be in a coma, great one. And from his back, sprout the stubs of - wings? I know little of such matters. The Prophet commanded me to tell him of bovine mutants among my kind, and of how to care for sick predators. But I see no sign of that here. This is - this is sorcery, I am sure of it.”
The Taur’ruk sighed a heaving breath, and warm air travelled across the green waters, rippling them.
“Three paths remain open to him. The best trodden path is barred to him now - my path. He will never become as I am, or as Anshan is. So, three paths remain. If he falters in form or spirit, the wings will never come, but in their place mutation will never cease. His flesh will burst as the power of the Great Beyond overtakes him and he is reduced to a fearsome, idiot mass. You sensed them, did you not? As you walked to the chamber? Gibbering spawn, fit only for war. Insensate. Less than a hound in mind.
“The other path, the shining path, ends a little like a manling turnskin; Lugalbanda will walk ever closer with the Great Bull, until his form changes for the final time. Mighty wings will spread from his back and ever mightier horns from his brow, greater than my own. He will become as the Great Bull in aspect. The crude speech of the Dawi will be lost to him then, for his face shall be as the face of Hashut; a great Taurus, a steed fit only for Hashut’s greatest champions. It is that path which Enmerkar fears. To lose his son in such a way brings him great sadness, for the Stone Curse has gelded him. He can sire no more progeny. At first, to have one of the Blessed for a son was a sign of great favour from Hashut. Now his eyes are blind to the great fortune that lies ahead. He sought your barbaric craft out, and as sent you now, as a misguided effort to influence or prevent the inevitable. How long can he hold out against the will of our god? The wings are an unalterable sign, umgi. Hashut has made up his mind.”
His son, I thought, the latest piece of the puzzle falling into place. His only son.
“But, great one… you said there are three paths left to him.”
The Taur-ruk laughed, a guttural sound, and flared his nostrils.
“The final path is not spoken of to the likes of you, umgi, dreams or no. Go from this place. Your end will come soon enough. Anshan; prepare the sacrifice.”