Sopping mud trails formed miniature canyons in the streets. As if some precise giant had dug slender fingers into the Earth between sections and sides of town. Carts, wagons, their beasts of burden, and all other manner of creatures formed them.
Their sopping troughs were scattered about town between what little remained of eroded, patchwork-cobble. What remained of once-prominent holographic projectors and neon signs glowed and flickered dimly advertising everything from taverns to seamstresses, buds to brothels. The opaque movements of a thousand different advertisements and static signs belched Technicolor light onto stone and rotting-wood.
That disease of neglect, civic abandonment, stretched across the almost-forgotten township.
But within Sodden Holo, it was the Empire that was forgotten. Life was squalor, no doubt, but squalor of a kind with charm and routine. The type only available when living in freedom, without a mythical force beyond the realm to oppress. Because it cared not for them nor they for it, they were passive.
Then the caravan came.
They’d holed up outside town two days before anyone attempted contact. Then, sent a trio of armed men to the tavern. They wore black and green and gold, and asked questions. Many questions. Gruffly and rudely: on where to secure supplies, seek shelter, the names of prominent men and women and aldermen.
Already these vectors of disease had begun to infect, spread. Money. The stranglehold. They’d throw it around, hoping to mesmerize or hypnotize. Great mounds of it. Gold, silver, copper– jewels even. They’d trade anything, had everything or access to it. Like any siege engine, if allowed, that money-disease would go to work breaking down walls.
Fact was, people in Sodden Holo didn’t much care for money or the Empires. They gummed up the works, but were not seen as evil. Money in particular was no evil, but rather another tool to barter with. As equal to that of gold or silver in the eyes of the trader and their desire.
This was the Empires’ new kind of war. One of economics. For hearts, minds. Not permanent, but enough to quell the fringes ready to rise in revolt. As in every iteration of civilization, it was yet another overlord’s controls. The Empires, when it mattered most, lavished wealth upon people like confetti, but only for adoration’s sake. Never stability’s.
People furthest from the constant influx of money– Empirical capitals and the like– were beginning to piece that together. Money however, when it could not quell the occasionally rising tempers, gave excuse for lashing-out against one’s own people.
Times were that every Human was an island and ruler unto their self. Between then and now, it had become painfully clear that was no longer the plan for greater Humanity. Some people were allowed that, sure: rulers, mostly. The other 99 times out of 100, they weren’t. About 85 of those 99 meant being smeared in shit and grime the rest of one’s life regardless of those privileged few.
That was Humanity’s choice. Long made in a world far-longer gone. In a time and people that no longer existed. Human-Social had given way, violently, to Human-Servile. Whatever side one chose, the bitter reality was clear: servitude was undeniably its base.
Whether serving the wealthy, their associates, their system of wealth-creation, or anyone else therein, it was impossible not to be beneath someone.
But that was a world and way of thinking long-off for Sodden Holo. Neither glamour nor shine existed there, technicolor belches notwithstanding, save on the local boot-black’s corner. How could it? Half the town was streaked in mud all the warmer months, frozen over the rest. It knew of life in the colors of grit and grime, the scents of grass and cow shit.
In short, through the ways of the land, its inhabitants, their effects on it.
For those passing through, it was obvious this was a land separate, but governed. Whomever did the governing, they knew, did it well enough so the only signs of civic neglect were the roads the Holo could not repair without all-important and scarcematerials traded mostly by Empirical quartermasters or tradesmen. It was a way of strangle-holding the people from establishing Empires without their knowledge.
But progress was inexorable. Its tide could not be diverted forever, nor without constant attention to details, lest the dam crack asunder.
Yet time and people marched on. Roads appeared. Trails. All of them, it seemed, led through Sodden Holo– at some point. Distant or rare as it was for some, it was undeniable.
They were a crossroads hub, but not the kind one thought of lightly. Rather, it was one all travelers ended up in by misfortune. It didn’t judge. Nor did its people. But they, like it, knew it was no-one’s intended stop. Yet that need not mean a traveler feel unduly unwelcome either.
They took no quarter for the worst of atrocities, of course, like most decent folk. Only when bitten did the hand that fed, strike out though. Especially against those most unforgivably biting. What Dante might have termed, “Treason against one’s benefactors.” To that, such punishments never came unduly, nor ever with malice but meant to correct.
That didn’t mean it couldn’t turn bloody.
In hindsight, people came to realize, that was what the Empire had underestimated. That people wouldn’t give it the same disregard it gave them. They’d sent a caravan of Empirical guards to enact a trade-war on a free economy. Rather than send ambassadors to join or appraise it, they sought to take it by force, with nary a thought to those effected.
Hindsight couldn’t change those effects.
Their intent became apparent the second day the envoy visited town– fifth since their appearance overall. It was raining. A typical persistent and swampy mist citizens and drifters had come to expect of Sodden Holo, its surroundings: warm, and smelling of earthen protection rising from the very ground beneath their feet.
Reason had left most of those in the pubs. Meanwhile, the tension of the envoy’s encampment, brewing since its appearance, had soured and afouled a great many moods.
The air was rife with power. As those trembling within the tavern were well-aware, it was a power no mortal dared tempt. All it would take to set the power alight was the wrong actions within it. The wrong minds, the type that cared not for maintaining peace or others’ ways.
Five of them entered the tavern. Two remained near the door, guarding ‘til further orders. Two more escorted a third between them. He was tall, scrawny. Spectacles perched on his face, he looked and moved like an old Eagle– perpetually down-looking, on the hunt.
He approached the bar, calling for the tender to procure the manager.
The tender laughed, “You dunno how things work a-roun’ ‘ere.”
His tone sharpened, “I beg your pardon?”
“No. You don’t. You come in ‘ere with your bloody gold and silver, try to buy the place. Why else would you lot come in, all pompous, clutchin’ that ledger like some kind’a King bout to lay his prick on the bar?
“I ain’ sellin you nor your dogs another drink ‘til I get some answers. I been Alderman of Sodden Holo, twen’y years. Empires never given us the time’a day. Never answered our letters or requests for help.
“All the same, we get by. ‘Cause we hav’ta. You come in here, wanna lay your prick on my bar like I don’t know what’s bout to happen. But I’m tellin you, I’ve seen prick-whippin’ enough times I can sense it a mile off.”
The shrewd man’s face snarled. The bar was deathly silent. The tender eyed the two ruffians beside him; former mercs, paid better as Empirical Guardsmen for their skill in battle. These were not men to be lightly crossed.
The tender’s face hardened at hints of blood-lust on the air. The power had turned. Sodden Holo would soon be bathed in blood.
“You g’wan and put your prick out, mister. ‘N I’ll make sure to cut it to size for you.”
A hiss. “The nerve!”
Someone screamed. Metal clashed. The power erupted, releasing ferocity across the tavern. Chaos of bodies and limbs flayed. Blood sprayed. An all-out melee began and ended within seconds. By the end, the bar stank of blood and bowels, beneath echoing screams from dying and injured.
The Alderman-Tender was busy bandaging a gash in a woman’s arm when he called to, “Raze the Envoy’s camp. Leave nothing standing!”
Every man and woman capable would need to be ready. The Empire would be coming.
The tender looked over the ruins of his bar, knowing for the better of all he should have sold out. But if he had, what would be left of him to help his people, his home? The Empire was not the way forward for Sodden Holo, that much had always been obvious.
But would there be any way forward now? He wasn’t sure.
Unable to dwell, he moved on, too swept up in doing what he knew all would soon be doing: preparing for war.