Skeletal steel and concrete rose as sharp darkness in gray light, stalagmites threatening the sky impotently while the ground devoured them over eons. Once the seats of Kings, Titans, Tyrants, now they were little more than remnant bones of an old world. One lost to myth and time equally: Former SkyGods’ temples now consigned to decay, as with all lost epochs.
Perhaps one day, such remnants would be excavated: dug from the depths to be better understood. Those few living and aware of the possibility, doubted its happening.
Their numbers were fewer each day.
Krant had learned the hard way that it was impossible to rebuild what had been lost. Though there were arguments what was lost didn’t deserve reconstruction, they were academic. For scholars, by scholars. Theoretical works at most.
More, they were distractions. Attempts to ignore the issue at-hand, rather than address it. Nothing was being done, globally. Civilization was stagnating. The animal-Human, too, because of it. That was all that mattered.
When Humans needed most to ensure their survival as a species, that was unacceptable.
Krant knew of the Empires, distantly. The mountains were his home. Like his village, no-one cared to attempt conquering what could be neither easily reached nor exploited. It made him more qualified than most to impartially examine anything– everything.
Life worked differently in the mountains, honing one in some ways more than others, but mostly doing only that. Honing, tempering. It was a unique way of life: one of a kind. People at the base of the mountain, or in the plains, never worried but for the harshest of winters and driest of summers.
Mountain people worried and toiled all year.
Life in the plains was split into varying seasons, each accordant to the prosperity of the last. Off the mountain, people had breaks: time to watch crops grow before harvesting them. Krant’s people had no breaks. They ate only what they could hunt or slaughter infrequently, and foraged or grew the rest during the slight warming at mid-year that brought occasional sunlight. The rest was spent in hunting, fishing, general chores and hard labor.
Such lives were worlds apart.
Quite simply, Krant’s people were the Forgotten. They knew it, didn’t mind. Having never presented a threat to the Empire when it was building itself, Krant’s people were too far out to incorporate, and not worth the risk or effort to force out or hang otherwise. So, Krant and his family, their mountain village of thirty other families, lived as one entity, separated, and caring not for the Empires– nor likewise.
Yet no-one minded. Life was life. The villagers had been interlinking and splitting for a century or more: like the cells people knew they’d never again see. Some sought fortune and glory, peace, down or in the mountain. Some never left the village’s confines, tending to little more than herb gardens and hunting needs.
Still more, like Krant– and in each their own way, worked each day to strengthen their village, family, or people.
Krant himself often led Hunts, sharing the food procured freely with those nearest and neediest. Blood or not, they were all kin. He’d helped to build and lead death-pyres for at least one member of every family in the village. Often, more. He’d held his fair share of grieving masses at bay against the tumult of inner-turmoil. Enough that he felt the flesh of each as that of his own.
Level-headedness and sound logic had made him a leader in more than a few situations. Fortunately, none requiring much in the way of danger.
This would be different. Krant knew it even now. Something was happening in the forest. The trees were too still. On normal nights, what few tree-dwelling creatures remained in the world, often reported soundly until sunrise. Or else, they frolicked, hunted, or skittered to and fro amidst the leaves and grasses of one of Earth’s few greeneries.
Nocturnal animals, Krant as Huntmaster knew, had survived much of the cataclysm that had stolen the old world. Most theories put forth Human fear of the night in the first decades of the old-world’s collapse as cause. That fear, theoreticians postulated, allowed such animals to thrive, as Humans tended to hunt large prey (often predators) in twilight hours.
Simply, Humans killed predators as prey during daylight so their prey flourished at night.
That was the theory, anyhow. Krant wasn’t sure he believed it. He was certain of its effects. Presently, there was nothing in the trees. Nothing moving. Sounds faded the nearer the rising smoke came. Krant had tracking a wood-dog when he noticed it, he understood why now.
Two days before, he’d wounded the wood-dog: large and cunning like a wolf but descended from dogs rather than the other way around. It seemed what Evolution refined could refined itself– to terrifying result.
Nature had turned one of man’s best friend’s into its newest predatory nuisance.
Fortunately, they were abundant enough that a diet to be supplemented in the event of lean times. Carrying the rest of the village’s needs on his back meant he himself (and a few others at that) didn’t scoff at stray meat.
It had attacked, alone, about midnight.
Unlike most creatures, it sought campfires as a means to hunt or scavenge. Certain Canines no longer feared Humans, no matter the cost it might incur them in the end. Usually, they attacked in large packs that way. Overwhelming so that each man was caught off-guard when it began. In the case of this creature, only starvation would compel it.
It had been a lean winter.
It wouldn’t even be good enough to eat, Krant knew. The best he could do was put it out of its misery: nothing deserved the torture of starvation. Let alone when wounded, as he done to this one. So, an act of mercy had compelled him onward. The irony not lost on him that he’d eat it as likely as it him, given half the chance and starving.
Now, it was close. Somewhere nearby. He felt it in his gut. The smoke risingupwind meant it’d caught scent of the camp. Injured or not, it would attempt another meal.
Krant used it as an excuse to move in range of the fire. Its inner ring of light glowed half-obscured by tents in a grove of trees. Red, black, and white glittered proudly in the hidden grove, beneath low flames of a cooking spit.
Already the men were on their feet, swords drawn: Empirical men. Gruff voices.
“’Ow could they’uv got wind of it!?” One cried.
“Shut your goff, you fool,” another hissed. “It’s dogs. Dogs!”
Further ranting was drowned in what Krant knew to be true, but might never prove.
The sounds of the Wood-dog circled with a mournful howl. It off-balanced the men, frightened them. It leapt from behind a tent, knocking one of the men to the forest floor and dragging him off as it followed through. The others turned.
It was now or never. Krant acted on his gut, fearing only what he could not live with otherwise.
The world went red, then black. Krant was on the heels of the remaining, two men. They chased the dog as it drug their comrade. He chased them, driven by a force he knew but could not place. In a moment, he was atop the nearest man. His dagger plunged into his side from behind. Withdrew. Rose, slashed.
Moments of blood-warmth flashed in war-poses over gurgling sounds lost to time: Lightning-capturedimages of terror, like frames in old-world film.
Then, it was over. The Wood-dog was gone, one Empirical corpsemissing.
Krant’s blood-rage subsided. Its source mystifying but its cause obvious. He confirmed his suspicions after raiding the camp for supplies and information. There, in script form and signed by an Emperor’s Agent, orders to “seize and raze any unregistered settlements.”
Why else would the Empire have sent people here? Why else would they’ve been camping in these woods, so obviously trying not to be found? Krant wiped the last of the blood from his dagger, knowing the answer. He broke camp, using its most-flammable contents to build pyres for the bodies
He set them alight and walked off toward home.
Two things would never happen again from that day forward, Krant knew: he would never eat wood-dog again, and the Village would never be at-peace again. The Empire had just declared the extermination of “unregistered settlements.” That meant they were consolidating, constricting, exerting their authority to maintain control of their lands.
War was coming. Krant would be ready.