“The Ranger Attyria Hend didn’t know what to expect when she arrived at the first slaughtered village, everyone and everything dead except the dogs, which had just gone completely missing, save for the deceased one she’d found on the outskirts. That poor creature had been almost buried for lack of a better description, laid out in a cleared area on a cool patch of dirt, with stones and paw prints pushed up around the canine’s still body.”
The following scene occurs as we approach the halfway point of the novel. The Law of the Primes tells the story of a civilization at the peak of its power, but about to collapse when magic, a magic they deny even exists, reawakens in their world after a periodic meteor shower turns deadly. The Empire is investigating strange occurrences in the fall out, this one in a far off territory from the mainland.
The Ranger Attyria Hend didn’t know what to expect when she arrived at the first slaughtered village, everyone and everything dead except the dogs, which had just gone completely missing, save for the deceased one she’d found on the outskirts. That poor creature had been almost buried for lack of a better description, laid out in a cleared area on a cool patch of dirt, with stones and paw prints pushed up around the canine’s still body.
The body itself was grievously wounded, a massive cut down the chest and into the belly, like the poor thing was gutted, though the entrails were nowhere to be found. It was a strange, unnerving sight, but certainly no more so than the human bodies chewed down to the bones, and then some of the bones themselves cracked and chewed some more until the marrow itself was sucked clean. Twenty-three wearying hours before arriving at this dread location, she’d been informed by Command, or more accurately by a blurry Echo with a bushy moustache relaying orders on behalf of Command, that a small outpost on the Eastern Frontier, a few hundred miles south of Mettelwerth, had gone dark.
She soon reached the edge of the clearing, laying down to watch from between the stalks. There were a few yards of empty ground, some thin, gnarled trees, the branches stunted by the wind and lack of water, then the few buildings of the village proper, one barn on each side, like big wooden bookends from this angle.
The buildings themselves appeared undamaged, no smoke or fire or collapsed walls, the Western sides even picking up a little of that pleasant orange color as the suns set. The only thing missing were the villagers, their domesticated animals, and the necessary livestock to feed them. Curious, now, the Ranger started to rise from the grass, but then she noticed something odd atop the barns, like a slatted black strip lining the roof of each and, on second glance, most of the other buildings as well.
From this distance, it might’ve been some strange dash of paint to break the monotony, or perhaps the structures were decorated with thin, dark headstones poking out from the thatched, steeple roofs. Yet, neither headstones nor paint moved on their own, undulating subtly when you watched them closely. These dark sentinels were unfortunately alive, crows, carrion eaters, hundreds of them, perching in a perfect line along the rooftops, patiently waiting for something. They made no sound, barely moved a feather, just sat there, staring down into the center of the village.
Ria was too far away to make out their eyes, but she could imagine the cold yellow, inhuman pupils, thankful they weren’t focused on her, unable to even move for some indefinite period. The sharp, scrappy grass was practically cutting into her arms and legs by the time she finally rose again and unsheathed her dagger for good measure. She checked the full seventeen inches of blade carefully to ensure it was sharp, knowing full well even the finest Praithe-treated steel wouldn’t help against an army of birds.
It was something to hold onto, tight, regardless. The center of the village was only thirty odd yards away now, merely the meager trees blocking her view. She could make out something on the ground beneath the crude, brownish leaves and thin branches. Like broken sticks and twigs strewn in small piles, lying in strange, almost human shapes, the insides of a giant puppet twisted and tossed randomly about or some deranged artist’s interpretation of the mortal form.
At first, it was unclear what she was actually seeing; the truth so horrid and insane her brain refused to process it properly, but nothing can deny the scent of rot and decay for long. She knew in her nose and stomach that these were the remains of the villager’s torn bodies, men, women, and even children, left only as bones, mostly broken apart beyond recognition, held together only by scraps of flesh and sinew. There wasn’t much of either left, an uncertain feast for the crows.
The Ranger paused to look up at them now, certain their eyes would be only for her as she neared the center of the village, the pulse of her veins fresh with blood. She tightened her hood against the thought, despite the surprising warmth of the late afternoon or maybe that was just her own heated anxiety. The birds, however, remained sharply focused on the broken skeletons, patiently waiting to take their fill of the stringy remains.
The Ranger stepped past the modest tree, taking in the totality of the carnage, at least fifty or sixty people from this angle alone.
There were the remains of what must’ve been a toddler torn in two a few feet ahead in her path, recognizable only by the small size of the bones, broken apart at the spine, festooned with a few scraps of dried muscle and vein, all that was left. A few yards further on her right, there appeared to be a woman from the torn, bloody, tatters of a dress, perhaps the toddler’s mother. The skeleton was slightly more intact, the rib cage almost untouched, curving from the crimson dress and dust like some weird sculpture doused in caked blood, for the flesh was just as equally eaten away.
The other bodies, if one could call them that, were more or less in the same state, some in the center of the village, others just inside or outside the few doorways facing her, over a prime five dozen in all. There were more children amidst the adults, and she guessed the scene was the same in the few buildings beyond her range of vision, those who’d been taken down and devoured in the barns or their homes. A hundred people, eaten, and if the crows had their way, soon to be pecked completely clean.
Rangers were trained to deal with the unusual. Their purpose was to go where people weren’t, knowing that death was the inevitable outcome of life. Things like love and loss, joy and grief, the regular trappings of a normal existence, the passing of parents, births of children, were almost entirely alien. They were equally well experienced with dead bodies, often the first and sometimes the only, representatives of the Deyrun government to arrive at accidents, animal attacks, murders, starvation, dehydration, and every other calamity that could befall a mortal.
No training or experience, however, could’ve prepared her for the purely physical impact when the silent crows turned their attention on her as one. They didn’t move otherwise, only that strangely avian swivel of the head in her direction, studying her accusingly, like they’d lined up in their hundreds simply to witness her weakness. Her heart thumped in her chest, the panicked bass drum at some harvest ritual gone wrong, but her blood was cold, lethargic, carrying a slowly spreading fear that sapped the strength from her limbs, as though she could see the future and knew that nothing ever ends well.
Desperate, she looked back the way she came, into the past. The grasslands had always been her home, her life, her sustenance. She’d given everything else up, left even her poor mother alone when she took up her duties as a Ranger, barely returning until the woman lay dying in the corner of their tiny frontier home. The plains were all she ever had for herself, but the tall grass suddenly seemed like an impenetrable wall, a trap snapping shut, the sky above an endless maw devouring everything in its path, hungry and silent, sad and still.
Duty would require her to properly inspect the dead bodies later, count and catalog the remains. In the moment itself, however, the best she could do was close her eyes and step past the broken, barely skeletal bones of the woman and toddler, continuing onward only because riding into the sunset and forgetting the whole thing wasn’t an option. Some things can’t be forgotten or escaped, only suffered.
She opened her eyes again after a few steps, mainly for fear she’d accidently kick some poor sot’s bony remains, the blood and sinews sticking to her boot and she’d have to kick it off again. She would’ve preferred to keep her eyes closed forever, but now she was only a handful of yards from the dead center of the village. The barns rose a couple of stories tall on opposite sides, along with a rudimentary assortment of other small structures around the unimpressive town square. One of the barns was open, and she could make out a large skeleton half sticking out, the skull of a bull, the horns still somehow white against the encroaching shadows.
What could have taken down that beast?
Check back for more in the coming months as the novel comes together.