[WARNING: Graphic gore.]
“I like a woman in blood.”
Crimson traced rivulets past whitened knuckles, and she inhaled with a hiss as droplets split a dozen ways on the stone floor. The air was bitingly cold; her breath rose as steam from flared nostrils. “What do you want?” she asked, voice cracking and dry.
A small, wiry man in nothing but a red loincloth walked forward on silent feet, rolling his steps, rolling his lean hips, rolling his eyes like a wild horse. “You smell like blood,” he said quietly, watching her with sidelong glances. His face was fine-boned in profile.
She stared at him brazenly, daring him to meet her eyes, but he sidestepped a crescent around her and watched her stained lips. “I’m not bleeding,” she responded, opening her hand and dropping the loop of intestines she’d been squeezing. It fell like a snake’s coiling tail onto the tatters of a corpse at her feet.
“I didn’t say you were.” He paced coltishly, long-legged, prancing steps on the balls of his brown feet. “Why did you murder it?”
“Who are you?” she countered. She stood brace-legged over her kill, ripped hides hanging from her shoulders and hips like vines from a cliff face. There were no weapons in sight, bar the shortsword clutched in the corpse’s death-taut grip. It was unbloodied.
“My name is Bo,” he answered, staying away from the rear wall of the cave, keeping an ear cocked to the entrance. “What’s your name, murderer?”
She smiled, flat teeth as stained as her lips. “My name is Elisz. Why are you here?”
“You smell like blood,” he repeated, dancing backwards when she took two stiff-legged steps towards him. “Why did you murder it?”
“You’re a poor parrot.” Elisz lifted her hand to her lips and slowly licked the blood from her scarred fingers. It smeared across her cheeks, freshening the drying stains. “I was hungry, and tired. I wanted this cave. I wanted food.” She stared him down, shoulders hitched up aggressively.
Bo didn’t miss a step, watching her chin and her throat, dark lashes shielding his gaze. “And you will kill me, too?”
“Only if you plan to fight me for it,” she said, a snarl creeping into the undertone of her voice. She took another step forward.
He cocked his head like a bird, eyes gleaming. “What if I asked you to share?” he queried.
There’s an old, worn parchment pinned to a tree just outside your clan’s territory, half a leap off the downtrodden path you’re on. It flutters in the wind, stubbornly refusing to rip or fade, and you approach it curiously. The script is large and graceless, but there’s a certain flow to the characters that suggests a strong, callused hand.
Steel plunging into flesh and cleaving through bone.
It is always a horrific sound to hear, that crack of snapping bones, the splash of suddenly-spilt blood crashing like a crimson wave against your breastplate as you rip the sword out of the enemy’s chest. The flesh clings to the dripping blade in ragged tendrils, and if you look closely enough, you might see the torso flatten a little as the lungs deflated. If you were a pious man, you might believe that the soul left with the final breath…
Always unnerving to be on the receiving end, to feel that explosion of white-hot agony erupt from the shattered breastbone, flaming down the spine and up into the skull like a crescendo of raw, searing pain. To watch with wide, staring eyes as the swordsman draws his blade back and smiles grimly; to watch him seem to rise above you as you crumple, hitting your knees before toppling backwards.
After a while, the brief seconds eternal, the encompassing agony becomes background noise, a sort of comfortable numbness.
And then, after a spate of nothingness, no-thought and no-feeling, sucking in a pained breath and screaming with the first exhalation because it hurts so much that you can’t think. The lifewalker who dragged your blind, lost spirit back to your half-healed body is standing behind you and urging you up, to take up your blade, to rejoin the fray–
All the while, you’re still bleeding cold blood, and natural magic is whirling around you as the lifewalker channels health into your broken body. You can’t stop seeing flashes of utter blackness, complete oblivion, and you’re shaken to the core that you faced Eclipse and came back from it to see the light of Father’s face in the sky above you.
And the next thing you know, your fingers are curled around the haft of your axe or the hilt of your sword, and you’re lifting your weapon high to drive the blade deep into your enemy’s chest. You watch with a grim little smile as he stares at you in utter shock and disbelief, blood beginning to dribble from his lips as he falls to his knees, and then topples backwards.
That is war.
We are bloodwalkers. We are the soldiers who fall, and we are the warriors who rise again to fight.
My name is Blademaker. Once upon a time, I was a weaponsmith, one of the best. And then the Elderwar intensified and drew even the most peaceful of the Walkers into the bloodbath. Even me.
I have seen the enemy. I have fought them countless times now. I have died and been raised by our healers, our lifewalkers. And I have fought on.
There is no end to the Elderwar in sight. I, and the Lupos, and my fellow Walkers, all fight simply to survive.
It is time to start fighting for peace.
Oh, Ykinde. One of my prized worlds, a land of organic magic and dieselpunk technology, the setting of Into Fang Wood. I have done more work on this world than I have on most others, Lavana and Cadora being the exceptions that spring to mind. (Cadora may be introduced in a later blog post, but as I have no current projects set there, it may be some ways down the road.)
Bear with me, as there’s a lot to tell about Ykinde and this post may wind up a little long.
It’s impossible to describe Ykinde without briefly introducing you to its four major intelligent races: Avans, humans, Lupos, and Panthera. Each link will take you to a complete page on their physical capabilities, their castes/classes, and their cultures, but I’ve provided a brief summary below.
Avans are tall, slender, wingless bird-people with round faces and curving beaks. Renowned for their knowledge of and skill with magic, Avans are sophisticated, civilized people whose bright plumage and love of flowing, ornate clothing easily sets them apart from all other Ykindeans. Living under the idea of Beauty in grand and beautiful cities, most Avans are mages or artful warriors, though many are medical scholars, and some few profess to be naturalists. They are mortal enemies of the Lupos, engaged in the Elderwar for centuries running, and relentless in their quest to see the wolf-people vanquished; they are allies with the humans and most Avans are neutral towards the Panthera, although many will fight them alongside Lupos if necessary.
Humans are remarkably average, tail-less, flat-faced people with bare skin and unimpressive bodies. Well-known for their ingenuity and inventiveness, humans tinker with mechanical devices and sort themselves into family-run businesses. Neutral in the Elderwar, they act as merchants and traders to both Lupos and Avans, supplying both races with whatever goods and raw materials are in high demand. One human family enslaved the Panthera Walker tribe as bodyguards and servants, but after the Walkers’ escape from slavery, most humans will kill or seek to capture Panthera on sight. Humans preserve and enforce their neutrality with both Lupos and Avans, straddling the most profitable line of action at all times. Though they are businesspeople first and foremost, dedicated to their family’s trade, humans also study other paths: they are soldiers, medics, witches, or engineers.
Lupos are powerful, furred, tauroid wolf-people with four legs and two arms. A strong and spiritual people, the Lupos live in harmony with the natural world around them, worshiping Father Sun, Mother Moon, Brother Sky, and Sister Earth. Lupos band together in clans, led by a single chieftain and a few betas; many are shamans and braves, while others are healers and rangers. Their tools and weaponry are simple, sturdy, and plain; they have little use for showy luxuries or impractical belongings. They are mortal enemies of the Avans, engaged in the Elderwar for centuries running, and they are tireless in their efforts to defend their land and their people; they are allies with the humans, and most clans are also allied with or neutral towards the Panthera. The Tehar Lupos were the ones to succor the Panthera Walkers when they escaped from human slavery in Royalwood.
Panthera are lithe, agile, feral cat-people with wide faces and rounded ears. Traditionally primitive and nomadic, the Panthera wander Ykinde in tribes, moving as part of the predator-prey cycle as hunters. One particular tribe, the Panthera Walkers, was captured and enslaved by humans; after many years, they escaped and found sanctuary with the Tehar Lupos, rebuilding their tribe and becoming the first stationary band of Panthera Ykinde had ever seen. (The Hunters are the only other non-nomadic Panthera tribe; they are an off-shoot of the Walkers.) Nomadic Panthera have few possessions or tools, but the Walkers and Hunters trade with Lupos and have a similar quality of life. Many are bloodwalkers and spiritwalkers, while others are lifewalkers and beastwalkers. They are enemies of the humans, their former slavers, and allies with the Lupos; they are neutral towards many Avans, but will fight those who attack their wolfish allies.
Most of Ykinde is fairly temperate, experiencing seasonal changes. The farther north you go, the less lush the land becomes, devolving into sparse deciduous forests, mountains with evergreens, and finally flattened tundras. There is quite a large portion of land that consists mostly of rolling mountains, savannas, and scattered greenery. The coasts are extensive and tend to be quite tropical, except for the northernmost stretches; nearly all of the coastline is well-forested, oftentimes a jungle, and pocked with inlets and small bays that make perfect seaports for the human traders. Both Lupos and Avans prefer to settle in rich lands with many trees; the Lupos keep their lands well-forested to encourage grazing animals, whereas the Avans will clear out patches to build their cities and to farm.
Humans have controlled Ykinde’s economy since the beginning of the Elderwar. They established a basic currency using gems and coins made of precious metals, made prices relative to the buyer’s race, and also established a quality check for items to be bartered, rather than purchased. They trade only with Lupos and Avans, killing or attempting to capture Panthera on sight. Panthera barter goods with Lupos, who barter goods or use currency to trade with humans, who use currency (or very rarely barter) to trade with Avans. Each race has its forte in amassing raw goods and crafting some things: Panthera are skilled leatherworkers, Lupos construct sturdy homes and also are good weaponcrafters, humans invent and create technological gadgets, and Avans are skilled weaponsmiths. All of the races are at least decent at making weaponry and armor, as well as living quarters and other basic tools to survive.
After introducing The Demon-God of Jubagh, I realized I should probably explain to you just how this crazy universe works. If you want the full, glorious detail, you can look at the mechanics page on the wiki, but I’ll try to give you a good overview here.
Gurhai is a finite universe. Like a geode, it has open space enclosed by an oval shell made of densely-packed organic and mineral detritus. There is a flat layer of sun systems that stretches length-wise in the very center of the shell. There are precisely one hundred worlds in the universe, separated into thirty-five sun systems; similarly, there are exactly one hundred sentient species in the universe, though not evenly distributed as one-per-world. All but two worlds in the universe are round and flat; Airdh (the First World) and Gurhai (the Last World) are the only spherical worlds, and they are at the far ends of the universe, a full year’s travel apart. The suns are mobile and small, weaving or springing between planets in their systems, and there are no actual moons. In the top and bottom halves of the void, which are striated by the layer of worlds, there are creatures unlike any found on the worlds, living on the edges of atmosphere and gravity wells.
Gravitic ore is the glue that holds the universe together; it is a polarized mineral found at the center of a planet’s crust. The polar side has a very strong attraction – gravity – and the non-polar side has a very weak attraction, but does not repel. Gravitic ore is dark and reflective, resembling a cross between hematite and coal anthracite. In addition to producing gravity, gravitic ore also produces the magical energy inherent in each world, similarly polarized; while the strength of gravity varies little between worlds, the magic density fluctuates greatly between planets, going from magic-dry to magic-rich. The polarity of the gravitic ore determines which face of a flat world will become the life-supporting side; the non-polar side will only be strong enough to keep very heavy objects in place, such as rocks and ore. The non-polar face of the world also contains dry ice, which creates the thick, drifting fog that obscures the undersides of the worlds. Gravitic ore can be carefully mined to be placed sparingly in the lowest decks of intersun ships, giving them gravity and a source of magic while they venture into the void between suns. Gravitic ore also constitutes the majority of the materials that comprise the shell of the universe, making it nigh-deadly to approach the rocky barrier; the intense gravity will pull any ships in and smash them against the rocks.
The worlds, as previously mentioned, are mostly flat, round worlds. They support life, have gravity, and produce magical energy only on one face; the other face is rocky, barren, and clouded with mist from dry ice. Worlds vary greatly in magical density, but less so in size; the smallest world is half the diameter of the largest world, and all other worlds range between them. There is a rim of high mountains encircling the entire planet, which keeps creatures, water, and other resources from falling off the edge of the world. Atmosphere is generated by the plant life on each world; it has no defined boundary, but simply gets thinner and weaker as travelers move away from the world, becoming unbreathable eventually. The skies look different on each world; in many cases, one can see the other worlds of the system, if the world faces them; other worlds appear approximately as large as Earth’s moon in the sky.
Travel between the worlds is common. A dozen races design and build their own intersun ships, but the most common by far are Loi ships, halasshian ships, human ships, and buthinian ships. Human and halasshian ships have always had gravity and a source of magical energy, due to being constructed with a very thin layer of gravitic ore in the bottom deck, which also holds the soil, water, and plant life necessary to maintain a breathable atmosphere in the void. Buthinian ships do not have gravity or magic once they leave the planet; Loi ships were the same at first, but many Loi ships are now constructed with gravitic ore in a manner similar to halasshian and human ships. Because gravitic ore is responsible for generating magic, and because magic density varies so drastically between worlds, intersun ships constructed on magic-rich worlds are more prized by most than ships constructed on magic-dry worlds. Intersun ships are shaped and built much like water-going ships, complete with a keel, multiple deck layers, an outer/upper deck, and many sails. All ships have an entire deck or more devoted to flora; once the ship leaves the planet’s atmosphere, all windows and doors are sealed, the upper deck is no longer walked, and the air produced by the plants on-ship keep the passengers alive until they reach the next planet. The universe is not an unbearably large place; fast ships can make the trip from the First World to the Last World in a year, with most sun systems having neighboring suns within a month or two of travel. It generally takes no more than a day to go between worlds in the same system.
Intersun ships do not land on-world once they have launched, since the world’s gravity would smash the vessel into the planet; the people build docks well above the world’s surface, where the pull of gravity is weaker, where the large ships can load and unload their passengers and cargo. Smaller boats without gravitic ore can make the trip between planet surface and intersun dock to transfer people and items. The hovering intersun docks are maintained via magical or mechanical means, depending on the world in question and the technology/magic level of the people who maintain the docks; the on-world boats that travel between dock and world are powered in the same fashion. Intersun ships themselves use a combination of magic, machinery, and void winds to move; the former two are what enable the ships to navigate within atmosphere or when close to worlds, but when between sun systems, the void winds propel the ships. Void winds are present everywhere near the layer of worlds in the universe, but they are not breathable by any world-dwelling creature; void winds are usually strong, can crop up into gale-force storms, and can occasionally die out and leave a ship idling in the darkness for a while.
Words heard not too long ago rang out in silence, repeated constantly in one hunter’s thoughts.
‘You must not let them hear you, for that may be your death. You hunt alone, so you must be exceedingly careful — if you are wounded, they may attack, and you will die if they do. Seek out the slowest, the weakest; choose your target well, and wait for it to emerge from the herd’s protective bowels. You are swift, but you do not want to immerse yourself in the herd, for they will kill you. These are dangerous prey, young Kiva, and you are a fool for wanting to hunt them… but you are a skilled fool, and I believe you will succeed.’
The old warrior was right in saying that Kiva was skilled, but the young male didn’t believe he was so foolish… perhaps reckless and overly confident, but not a fool. He knew the risks in hunting the deadly Helk, but he would not back down so easily. It was a personal challenge, and one that he refused to decline.
Silky apricot fur rippled with the movement of lean yet powerful muscles as the tan crept forward, shoulderblades protruding bonily above his slender frame with each stride. Absolute silence. The herd was only a few hundred meters away from him, and he was fast approaching the limit of the tall, wheat-like grass that effectively concealed him. In a few more slinking steps, he would pause, and then… strike.
Jade green eyes glittered with a brilliant intelligence as Kiva came to rest at the very edges of the longer grass; hardly breathing, he regarded the herd. Helks were massive ungulates, shag-furred in earthy brown and possessing a fearsome rack of sharp-tipped antlers, as well as heavy hooves that could crush his skull as easily as a red’s jaws could. Narrow, pointed ears flicked forward, funneling each little sound that the prey made inwards; Kiva’s senses weren’t exceptional for a Korat, but they were incredibly keen compared to those of most other Lavanians. Soon.
He’d already chosen his target: an old bull with a greying muzzle and blunt hooves was carelessly near the edge of the herd, and with age-weakened antlers, he should not be much of a fight. The Korat knew that the true danger was from the elder’s herdmates — should they decide to avenge his sudden death, Kiva would be hard-pressed to escape with his life, let alone his meal. He grinned, baring razor-sharp rows of small, thin teeth, at the thought. He needed this challenge, newly-adult and without a reputation.
The bull wandered farther out; no longer did any young, healthy Helk stand defensively between the elder and the open plains. Kiva’s grin tightened, whiskers slicked back and hidden in pale fur, as he slowly unsheathed narrow golden claws and readied himself. Just a few more moments — there were Helks keeping an eye out for the old one. Best to let them fall into a false sense of security before attacking.
‘These are dangerous prey, young Kiva, and you are a fool for wanting to hunt them…’
Aye, Athuta… perhaps. But tonight, you and the others will feast.
The tan waited five excruciatingly long minutes until he felt the Helk herd relax minutely. They would never let their guard completely down -no Lavanian would, if it hoped to live another day- but they were as calm and inattentive as they would become. It was time.
Kiva could reach speeds of over sixty leagues per hour; Helk could barely manage twenty.
This speed, coupled with almost instantaneous acceleration, send a slim blur of hunter towards the herd, a mere hundred meters away, and he was sailing in a leap before any Helk had time to react to his presence with an alarmed bellow. As though he were suspended mid-air and floating leisurely down, Kiva seemingly had time to look around at the Helks, and then straight at his target.
The old one knew his time had come; though not sentient, Helks were quite keen (and vicious) grazers. But in defiance of fate, he swung his rack to impale the young Korat lunging for his spine and neck–
Kiva struck with his tail, the powerful appendage wielding a blued ebony tailblade that plunged into the herbivore’s muscular shoulder. This first contact between hunter and hunted allowed the tan to avoid certain death and absorb the shock of landing from such speed with all four legs, and the Helk was bowled over with the force–
Suddenly, normal time resumed.
Bellowing tore the air apart and flashes of black hooves and greybrown antlers surrounded the young Korat. The entire length of his ten-inch blade was embedded into thrashing flesh, and though instinct had caught him in time to rip open the beast’s flank with his longclaws, the Helk refused to die so easily. Blood spurted in erratic geysers as Kiva jerked blade and claws from his prey, ducked a vengeful swipe of brittle antlers, and took a precious nanosecond to catch his balance with all four paws firmly on the ground.
He shouldn’t have done so, for a few points of the rack caught his left shoulder and chest in the next strike, ripping furrows in his lean frame that immediately gushed blood. The brilliant crimson fluid stained his fur, stickily pouring down his chest to fall in immense droplets to the short, blue beadgrass below. The shock of pain jolted Kiva out of his pause, and he reacted with a silent, drawn snarl, his tailblade cracking at an angle to shatter one half of the Helk’s rack.
The ungulate bellowed in pain and, Kiva imagined, shame as he was left with little defense against the speedy hunter. The tan shoved himself close to the big beast’s side, avoiding younger herdmates’ wild attacks, and looked up as the elder looked around and down. For one heart-shattering moment, brown eyes looked into jade, and prey understood predator.
Time resumed as a healthier Helk smashed into the Korat’s hip with one broad forehoof, nearly breaking bones and tearing a wide slab of flesh, skin, and fur off. Kiva howled in shock and pain, and a frantic whip of his bladed tail made the beast back away momentarily.
‘…If you are wounded, they may attack, and you will die if they do.’
There was still the matter of his target, who -mere inches away- heaved his last gasping breaths, mutilated flanks rising and falling jerkily with each huff. There was still the matter of a swift death, an honorable death. And there was still the matter of surviving the hunt to bring the meat back.
Kiva sprang away and faced the elder, his tail’s constant lashing protecting him from attacks from behind, and once again he locked eyes with his target. Younger bucks were beginning to gather, bellowing and rearing their fury, hooves flashing through the air like knives, like boulders, like death…
‘You are swift, but you do not want to immerse yourself in the herd, for they will kill you.’
The male charged, dodging one last desperate attack with the old one’s remaining points, and ducked under a flailing muzzle to angle his jaws upwards and feel his razor-sharp teeth pierce flesh. For a moment, it was a bloodless bite, but the Helk tried to rear and tore his own throat open with the movement… The lifeforce fled from him in crimson falls, waves upon waves of red splashing down and staining Kiva’s face, pouring into and burning his eyes, flooding his mouth. The tan hacked and spit to avoid inhaling and thereby drowning, and in his temporary blindness, he felt a hoof connect with his right shoulder.
He was flung backwards as an incredibly loud cracking sound registered in his mind as his own bones shattering, and he found himself skidding on his back away from the main herd. His haunch still burned terribly, but this new wound sent waves of immobilizing, mind-numbing agony surging through his system. For a long second, Kiva could not think.
‘And you will die if they do.’
He could almost hear Athuta’s voice as his vision blurred; the thunder of pounding hooves rumbled up from the ground to rattle his body.
‘And you will die if they do…’
The danger of his current position was driven home as Kiva saw a hoof descending — should it connect, it would crush his skull instantly. A messy but swift death. Green eyes flew open and the male jerked out of the way, slashing a shallow but painful furrow into his attacker’s heavy muzzle as he shoved himself upright. A broken shoulder blade would slow him, but the pain had already begun to become a way of life, a background noise that was hindering, but tolerable. It drowned out the burning of the flap of skin that still hung from his haunch.
He blinked once to clear the red tinges (sheens of spilt Helk blood) from his vision, then focused in on his target. The old one was on his knees, moaning loudly as crimson bubbles began to appear around his mouth and wide nostrils, popping with quiet, death-like sounds. Kiva snarled; he could not let such a formidable beast die in misery and in dishonor.
The male lunged forward, screaming in shock as the first step caused the two splintered halves of his shoulderblade to scrape together, but the next strides only allowed the grinding to become another background noise. There was a mission to be completed, and pain was not on the agenda.
‘But you are a skilled fool, and I believe you will succeed.’
One strike of a gore-coated tailblade ended the elder’s pain, and another Koratian hunting scream unnerved the younger Helks enough that they did not attack. Kiva held himself upright through sheer willpower, narrow muzzle jerking to look at the herd. Only three or four bucks were still close — the rest had wisely moved off, as Korats usually hunted in packs. They feared that the tan had kindred nearby, and he was better off for the assumption.
Kiva drew breath and screamed again, putting more enraged madness into this bone-grating, heart-clawing sound, and the remaining Helk began to retreat, perhaps fearing attack, or perhaps just realizing that the kill was made and they could do no more. The tan watched until he was sure that they would not attack again, and then, he struck one last time. His blade sank deeply into the still-warm flesh and carved a deep gorge into the Helk’s flank, and the male poked his muzzle in the gaping wound, nosing around until, eyes squeezed shut, he found his reward.
To the hunter goes the heart.
Narrow jaws and razor-sharp teeth gripped the massive muscle and painstakingly pulled it from its nest between deflating lungs. He held it in his mouth for a long moment, the weight pulling his head down, before he dropped it at his forepaws and threw his muzzle back to howl triumphantly. As he plunged his foreclaws into the bleeding organ, he heard Athuta’s acknowledging warble echo across the lands, and he grinned before devouring his prize.