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Iskara's Mercy

Made wretched, then doomed and damned and swallowed up by the desert, Iskara made peace with oblivion and sacrificed itself so that its neighbouring cities might survive.


At another remove even from other lost and legendary cities like Ys, Muziris and Atlantis, the ancient desert settlement of Iskara was believed to have been located somewhere in the Dasht-e Margo desert (now Afghanistan, then part of the Achaemenid Empire) before its disappearance at some point in the fifth century BCE. Unlike its more well-known contemporaries, the truth about the disappearance of Iskara did not vanish along with its inhabitants. Instead it was passed down as a story, shared from one generation to the next through countless generations of the descendants of Iskara’s few survivors; a eulogy and a grave warning.

There was a particularly dry and arid heat to the air the day that death came to Iskara, paralysing even to those long-accustomed to living in the desert. In the far distance, looming as large as a threat and as insubstantial as a mirage, an ominous caravan of riders dressed in tattered clothes drew closer. Not one of the usual or expected groups who visited Iskara, their slow approach was watched with caution and curiosity. As they came near, their unnatural gait became apparent, and the deathly pallor of greying skin could be seen through the rents and tears in their matted rags.

The children of Iskara were ushered into their homes, men set to arms as the dead crept towards their walls. The caravan was attended by a nauseating stench and clouds of flies, haunted by carrion feeders drawn in by their senses but kept at a distance by their instincts. They staggered to a halt outside the bounds of the settlement, waiting - just waiting - for what seemed like hours. People gathered watchful and wary, tension growing, and then, as if shredded by a whirling grind of blades, all the members of the caravan burst into livid explosions of rank and rotting gore.

Viscera swirled through the air in whorls, pulled along impossible currents as it coalesced into a whirling cyclone of blood, bile and bone. It thickened, congealed into a writhing wormlike monster that towered as tall as three men, its mouth was a yawning, churning maw layered with all the teeth of the caravan’s corpses, its flanks dotted with quivering arms, flagella that lashed and thrashed aimlessly and asynchronously. It churned and juddered, turning itself to face an assembled crowd who had been stunned into stillness and inaction and - in words that turned blood to ice - proclaimed itself to be Iskara’s Ruin.

It called itself a god, its voice a cacophonous screeching, and who were the people of Iskara to disagree with the inexplicable horror of everything they had just seen. It laughed as it told them that it required a ritual sacrifice in order to spare the settlement; two people a month to be marked - a ritual sign anointed upon them in blood - for its consumption. When they baulked at its demands, protests still forming on their lips, the monster reared up and lunged towards Iskara. Its rage killed seven men, ripping through weapons or armour as easily as it could tear through skin and bone.

Leaving their ruined corpses uneaten so that the people of Iskara could dwell on the consequence of defiance, the monster promised to come back the next month, and the month after that. It told them to tear down their temples and shrines, that they were to have no other gods, and crawled away into the desert with a sure and certain promise to return. The surviving witnesses held their collective breath, then began to pick through the wreckage of their friends as they tried to decide how to tell everyone else what had come to pass and what they would soon be forced to do.

The monster held Iskara in terrified thrall for the next five years, meeting any hesitation and all open defiance with escalating and disproportionate brutality. People attempted to leave, of course, but the monster met them in the desert and did not offer them the chance to reconsider. At first the tributes were volunteers, then the elderly and the weak. Eventually the belief that they might be saved waned, that the monster’s profane nature would draw the righteous wrath of God, and a lottery was put in place to offset individual culpability as despair permeated every aspect of life in the settlement.

Existence became rote, punctuated only by the lulls in an oppressive horror that had become so routine that the dread of the sacrificial ritual became a constant fugue of hopelessness. The monster came to collect and devour its tributes, otherwise only interacting with its subjects to heap scorn upon them for their weakness, then disappeared into the desert until the next sacrifices were due. But behind the fatalism, some were already working to free themselves from the monster’s malign rule; they had noticed that the monster would sometimes violently disgorge parts of the tributes it had consumed, and that these rejected morsels were often wearing adornments made with local fulgurites.

Believing that the glass might somehow be toxic to the monster, they began to stockpile as much of it as they could. Fearing the reprisals from a failed attempt to kill the monster, they deliberated and argued for months about how to fashion a weapon that would succeed in liberating them. The monster could purge itself of discrete pieces of the fulgurite, and if it survived it would likely destroy Iskara and then just find another city to damn. Eventually, in a mania born of their hatred of the monster and utter desperation, something drastically suicidal was proposed.

The glass would be ground up and eaten by those marked to be tributes, pieces too small to be easily separated from the meat of the monster’s meal and too fine for it to recognise that it was being poisoned. But the monster would not eat the dead, and consuming enough ground fulgurite to kill it would be lethal - even apportioned between two tributes. Instead they would flatter the monster with a celebration, with everyone in Iskara being marked for its gluttonous delectation (and poisoned as such). A few were exempt, but most partook eagerly, keen to kill their captor, and when it returned it ate and ate and ate until it was too late.

Mortally wounded, moribund, the monster began to come apart, catastrophically. Whatever power or force had kept it suspended in its decay was no more, and the noxious gases bubbled and burst through the tangles of mismatched flesh. Its eruption was, if anything, more explosive than that which had originally torn the dead into the gristle and grisly components for its truer form. The walls of Iskara and their surroundings were flattened by the blast, the air greasy with atomised fats and oils. The monster was dead, and between the murdered tributes and those killed by its death throes, so was almost everyone who had called that Iskara home.


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