A young boy's nightmare becomes a reality as the ancient enemies of humanity, The Demons, make their first strike in generations. Their incursion into the frontier village of Emraglen leaves a bloody wake and a lone survivor.
As a lad, Luther loved little more than exploring the mountains near his home with his family. They would often walk together along the old paths that crept up The Wastrel Mountains, hiking to the many peaks across the range that their village was nestled into. They would marvel at the views, feel the air in their lungs, and the strength in their legs. Luther loved the sensation of being at the top of a mountain. He felt a calm exhilaration and found himself as one with the world.
He learned a great many things in those quiet, timeless moments on the peaks. He came to understand how small he truly was, not only in the way that a child is small beside their parents but in how a person stands pitifully short against the trees. From the height of the peaks, he could see that his village was just a patch of colour and organization in the valley, against an ocean of green wilderness. From the tops of the mountains, Luther learned to appreciate the vastness of the world. The horizon seemed so far away and stretched in all directions as far as he could see. Luther knew full well that there was a great deal more beyond that still. Places so different from his home that he could not even imagine them. More people than he would ever meet, all with their own hopes and dreams and stories.
He found significance in his insignificance and possessed wisdom beyond his years. He knew that even the smallest pebble helps make the mountain tall and that a single drop of rain helps feed the rushing river. A lifetime is but a grain of sand falling in an hourglass, nothing compared to the eternity held within the stone below his feet.
Luther had the kind of youth that many yearn for and few are blessed with. His early years were full of happiness and love. That is, until one night in the early autumn of his tenth year when everything was taken from him. On that night, Luther's destiny was shaped by fire and bone and steel and blood. It was forged in anger and quenched in despair. The path laid before him by that night would reach till the end of the age, where Luther's actions would shape the future yet to come.
Before that fateful night, Luther lived with his mother, father, and sister. They made their home in a cottage atop the hills of Emraglen, in the northern reaches of The Dominion. Their home was built by Luther's father and mother, with the help of the villagers, when the couple first settled in the area. They came here to start their family, away from the cities they had grown up in. They sought the freedom of the wilderness to make what they wished of the world. The house was made of rich blonde timber and dark shimmering stone hewn from deep within the mountain. It held a breathtaking view of the town below them and the valleys extending off to the horizon. Birds would sing through the summer, and in the last warm days before autumn, they could be seen flying south for as long as one cared to watch.
A brook, fed by the glaciers atop the mountain, babbled through their back garden. Luther would often play in the water, looking for gleaming stones and insects to examine. When the conditions were just right in the winter, Luther and his sister would slide down its glassy surface on thick fur hides. They would wax the skin to go faster down the ice and across the snow until they hit deep snowbanks at the bottom of the hill near the square. They would laugh and play until they felt the snow nibble at them, then come running home for hot tea and a seat near the hearth.
At the front of Luther's family home was a small fenced yard full of wildflowers growing around small bushes and greenery. It was a perfect habitat for the small mountain creatures who would often burrow and nest beneath the shrubbery. The cute little animals, which Luther's sister on many occasions tried to tame, found safety being so close to humans, who naturally abhor most predators.
A stone footpath ran beyond the bushes and the fence, connecting Luther's home to the neighbours who dotted the hillside. All had enough space to feel their freedom and the fresh air but were close enough to remain welcoming and warm. The families would often gather on the hillside for the sunset and an evening drink after a long summer day. They would clear the paths together in the winter, playing games in the snow and sharing meals on the darkest nights before the spring. Even those most prepared could feel the desolation of the season at the edge of the frontier.
Below Luther's home was the square where most of the town's business took place. The bustling trade market was full of carts and stalls for the hamlet's artisans and the merchants and travelling traders from lower in the valley and elsewhere further away. There was a large inn with many well-appointed rooms for those visiting. The inn was nearly always busy but never unwelcoming to those in need. There was also a prominent public house full of music and people celebrating life with food and drink. It was known throughout The Dominion for its fantastic atmosphere; no one had ever had a bland meal or a weak ale in Emraglen. The grand hall sat at the northmost point of the square and was the largest building in the town, serving a litany of purposes, one among them being where Luther and the other youths attended their schooling.
Luther could read and write very well and was a quick study of his mathematics. The youths of the hamlet were taught the methods of observation, documentation, and experimentation, a discipline that was always useful and practical. They learned a great host of other subjects from the various master-level artists and craftsmen in the area. Students showing aptitude and interest would become apprentices later, while those with an academic drive could travel to the capital for more formal education.
The grand hall was also where Luther's sister would go on nights out to meet the other older girls her age, and sometimes the older boys too. Luther's father and mother would be there weekly, and sometimes more often, meeting with the other adults to talk of things children had no interest in. Local politics, guild business, the planning of festivals, all too dry for Luther's inquisitive mind. Luther preferred his studies to the talk of adults and the flirtations of the older youths, but what he enjoyed most from the square was the market.
Most mornings, whole families would come down to the square together to send their children off to school. After a quick bite of fresh bread with cheese and meat from the food stalls in the market, the children would run into class at the first bell. Then the rest of the family would gather groceries for the evening's meal and chat as they made the rounds, while those plying a trade or peddling wares would remain to make their living.
South of Emraglen was lush and vibrant valleys with fields for crops and livestock, meadows and forests for hunting and gathering, and many thick trees for timber. Many valuable ores and minerals, gems and stones were brought forth from within the mountains. The people of Emraglen would build, craft, and trade, using the many valuable resources at their disposal. They were comfortable, having grown wealthy and skillful over only a few generations.
Every week people from the farthest corners of The Dominion would come to Luther's village for the market. They would come searching for some of the many beauties offered there, bringing exotic items with them to trade. Some sought the skills of Emraglen's artisans, providing raw materials from far away to have them crafted by the men and women of the hamlet. Trading some of those rare materials to the artisans in exchange for the work they required. Others sought the mountain air and its beautiful vistas. They would pay in coin and would often take small souvenirs from the woodcarvers and gem shapers back with them as conversation pieces and badges of honour, proclaiming to their friends that they were worldly and adventurous. The people of Luther's village would always send their visitors off with a full belly, bright eyes, and something more to show the rest of the world their skill and hospitality, inviting all to visit and enjoy for themselves.
Emraglen, though small in permanent population, saw many thousands of visitors through the year. Its reputation was known throughout the entire Dominion. One of Emraglen's most popular attractions was at the heart of the mountain, a deep well of pure, clear water, fed from below by a spring and above by the rains and snows. The cistern is ever overflowing from a yawning maw on the mountain's face, filling a wide river that snakes through the foothills to other settlements through the valley. Deeper in the caverns are many smaller pools for swimming and soaking. Some holding healing hot baths of steaming water bubbling up from deep within the mountain, others near-freezing, filled by the melting of the glaciers.
Following the river is Emraglen's most important structure, and the reason it has seen so many visitors of late. A marvel known as The Iron Road was recently completed to connect the rich frontier territories to the rest of The Dominion. This marvel of the time was made chiefly of two parts. The first was an immaculate new footpath, wide enough for four carts to pass or thirty soldiers in tight formation to walk side by side. It was paved with smooth grey stone and saw much traffic from boot and hoof and wheel. The second part was a new technology. Two thick tracks of iron ran parallel to the road. Large cars rode in both directions, which seemed to float ever so slightly off of the iron. It was a combination of magic, science, and ingenuity. These cars brought trips between the Heartlands, The Cities, The Frontier, across the entire Dominion, from arduous weeks-long slogs to simple rides that took mere hours. This new technology brought daily trade and news between the corners of The Dominion. Areas in need could have relief, while those with a surplus could spread their wealth. It was indeed a new golden age Luther had been born into.
Luther and his family lived a life unremarkable, happy and simple. Luther's mother was a gem shaper, his sister her apprentice. They made beautiful art sought from across The Dominion and lenses and precision tools for the scientists in the capital. Luther's father was a master mason and woodworker. He made sculptures and furnishings desired by many but mainly helped build and design structures in Emraglen. Most of the homes built in the last decade were his design, as was the expansion of the inn, which was completed shortly after Luther was born. Their lives were full of art and comfort. They wanted for nothing and prospered as pillars of the community.
Then, suddenly, everything was changed forever. In the twilight after a harvest festival, Demons stole into their sleepy village. Quietly, and with the guile of rolling fog, they surrounded it, swallowing it whole. That night, as the chill winds of an early autumn night washed over the village, Luther woke from a nightmare and called to his father.
Luther wakes tearful, thrashing himself from sleep. He calls for his father, gripping his blankets tight over his face and breathing heavily. Luther tries to force his fear away. He chokes down his sobs until he hears his father's voice in the doorway, firm but gentle, calling to him. Luther calms as footfalls echo through his room. He takes a deep breath as his father's weight comes down on the bed beside him. Luther peeks out from his blankets when he feels his father's hand on his shoulder. Fighting the lump in his throat, Luther tells his father of his nightmare.
The face of The Dark had come to him in his dream and he felt its gaze upon him, piercing his soul and draining his light. He tells his father of eyes in the blackness and the jaws, hungry and gnashing to devour the world. The dream was too lucid. He felt his flesh pierced all over his body by the teeth of the darkness. He felt the warmth of life rushing from him, being replaced by the cold of the void. He felt as though he were dying, and being consumed by The Dark, only awakening as he took what he thought would be his last breath.
Luther's father takes him in his arms and reassures him that it was only a bad dream. He is safe at home, in his bed, with his family close by. Nothing can hurt him. He tells Luther that they can get up for a drink of water, then come back to bed for a quick story to set him at ease. As they head out of the room, Luther's father begins to hear strange noises coming from lower in the valley. He smells the faint odour of smoke. As he looks out the window across the hall, he sees a red glow coming from the square at the bottom of the hill. Terror grips his heart.
Luther sees that his father has been stirred and begins to panic, clinging to his father's sleeve, pleading with him for answers. Luther's father comes to his knee and explains that there must be something wrong down in the town. Luther's father lies for the sake of his son, saying that it must be a fire caused by the revelry from earlier in the night. Some rowdy villager must have knocked over a lantern in a stupor. He tells Luther that everything will be fine by morning. He quickly sends Luther down to the cellar to fetch a stack of buckets that the villagers would need to help fight the fire.
Luther's father closes the door, hiding his son away in the shadows.
Luther hears the door shut as he hops off the bottom step to the cold cellar floor. He hears his father running to the other rooms, waking his sister and mother. Luther's father tells his wife and daughter to get dressed and grab all that they can carry. They would need shoes, warm clothes, food, anything that would help them survive in the wilderness, but they would need to be swift and unencumbered. Luther's father tells them to pack quickly, then fetch Luther as they all go through the storm door at the back of the cellar. They will head out to the back garden and down the brook, away from town. They protest, but the look in his eyes and the gravity in his voice tells them not to question but trust.
Luther, peering out from a keyhole, watches his father rush down the hall. He hears a heavy wooden thud, followed by a sound like shining metal. He sees his father come out of the master bedroom holding a bright sword, one that Luther had never seen before. Luther's father holds it tight, pointing it down, watching as Luther's mother and sister come from the rooms with a few small packs for the journey. They carry a basket of food that will travel and enough warm clothes and blankets to keep the deepening cold of the season from their bones.
Luther's father nods to them and steps towards the front door. He opens it just a crack and looks out, beholding the horror brought upon their village. He sees homes burning at the bottom of the hill. He looks on in disgust as families are slaughtered while they flee. He witnesses the fury of The Demons. Hulking masses of flesh and horn plow through buildings and trample everything in their path. Their tusks rend walls and shower rubble across the village, powerful legs and arms moving them through buildings in a matter of steps, crumbling them in their wake. They are followed by shrieking spindles of claw and talon. These beasts tear through the wreckage, stabbing and ripping with every step, hunting for those not crushed by the behemoths, taking their lives without mercy. These abominations rampage through Emraglen by the dozens, snuffing out all life, destroying everything.
One of the demons in the middle of the square is entirely different from the beasts he seems to command. Luther's father catches a glimpse of a figure standing, watching the chaos unfold. It appeared man-shaped, in black armour, carrying a greatsword. Its bright red eyes glowing beneath a rack of horns, piercing through the smoke and dust. Luther's father closes the door, horrified, and tightens his grip on his sword, clutching it against his chest.
Luther's father turned from the door and knew that they would all have to run. Their best hope would be making their way to the garden, down the brook, and away into the mountains. They could hide high in the valley. They knew the secret paths and hidden caverns among the rocks. They would be able to get away. They would be able to survive until the soldiers came. They could even stay for weeks in the wilderness if they needed to.
Before Luther's father could make his first steps away from the door, he was buried in a torrent of rubble. He was crushed from the waist down when one of the massive tusked Demons made its way up from the square and smashed down the whole front of the house. The stone and timber that once made the home crumbled and splintered under its strike. The rubble fell hard and collapsed much of the home. Massive keystones bowed the floorboards, beams thick as a man fell from the ceiling and destroyed everything beneath them, burying a corner of the house in the remains of the roof. Luther was knocked from the top step of the cellar by the impact and fell hard, darkness filling his vision in a flash.
The falling debris spared Luther's sister, and she ran to her father's side, tears streaming from her eyes. A second Demon, smaller than the first and covered in spines and talons, tore through the cottage as she ran. It flailed its many arms and shrieked as it slashed at the air, the walls, the furniture, everything in its path. It leapt through the rubble, mindlessly throwing itself around in search of prey. Luther's sister was caught rushing to her father's side and flayed alive by the creature's scything claws. Luther's father, still conscious, watched as the Demon tore apart his daughter while she looked into his eyes. The beautiful young woman was reduced to a red mist through the hall and left as a twitching heap of meat on the floor.
Luther's mother had been caught in the shower of debris but managed to free herself from the rubble that once made their roof. Bloody but unbroken, she grabbed the bright sword at her feet that had been knocked from her husband's hand in the collapse. She pounced on the Demon standing over her daughter's remains and stabbed at it ferociously through the back. The blade sang through the air, and then, with a loud crack and hiss, the Demon's carapace split and its innards began to react violently with the blade. The Demon recoiled sharply, and she was thrown from its back into a couch across the broken room. She loses her grip on the sword, and it tumbles across the split floor, dropping through the floorboards into the cellar with a loud clang.
The impact left Luther's mother dazed, but as the Demon approached to finish her off, she grabbed a still burning oil lamp from the table beside her. She smashed the lamp against the Demon's face as it loomed over her, exploding it in a fireball of glass and teeth. The Demon flew back wildly, set ablaze, and slashed Luther's mother across the throat in its death throes. The Demon's flaming body ignited the rest of the room quickly and burned Luther's mother alive while the last of her strength left her.
As she died, the house grew quiet, the screams of the few surviving villagers echoed through the valley, silencing when they are hunted, the grating wails of the demons behind them. There was a deep silence along the hilltop, cold and heaving, not wanting to be heard.
Cassius steps from his car with a heavy heart and moves down to cross The Iron Road. The ruins before him still glow in the early evening dark, though the fires from the previous night burned themselves out earlier in the day. Embers under ashes and rubble give a haunting glow to the smoke still clinging to the air through Emraglen. Dark stains where blood had flowed as rivers followed the walkways and soaked the ground at every turn. Chunks of bloody stone and splintered timber littered the squares. The carnage was absolute as Cassius searched for any clue as to its purpose.
The once-popular market at Emraglen had been reduced to ruin and rubble. Deep gouges have been torn into the stone walls, caved in roofs are pierced with the skeletal remains of once-proud structures jutting through to the sky. Nearly all the buildings have been demolished, only a few resilient walls still stand. Scorch marks run down the centres of the streets, and what remains of the people lay blackened and trampled. Some broken and twisted into unnatural shapes, others in pieces, strewn wide. There was no movement, not even a breeze through the valley to clear the smoke and stench. The village was annihilated down to the last soul... or so it would seem.
Cassius follows large footprints in the dirt, a path of crushed flagstones and deep claw marks in the earth. They lead him from the square to the hill and Luther's family home. There is yet more gore on his path. The stench of blood is still fresh and robust. Cassius looks over the once beautiful valley view from the top of the hill. It is now entirely despoiled by the carnage below.
Cassius examines the area from this vantage point, noticing no clear direction of assault or retreat. The village seemed to collapse from all angles at once. It appears Emraglen had been taken in a great set of jaws all at once and ground to extract every last drop of blood and marrow. Violence to this degree was deeply inhuman and filled Cassius with dread.
Cassius reaches Luther's half-collapsed home on the hill and finds the last piece of evidence he required to confirm his suspicions. In the charred sitting room was the blackened corpse of a Demon, so unnatural against its surroundings. The features were burned away, but its shape remained, many appendages with claws and spines to bring nothing but pain into the world. A creature from beyond The Wastes, unseen by human eyes in centuries. Why was it here?
Cassius appraises the rest of the home, looking with great sadness upon Luther's family, and hears a subtle noise from the back of the house. He dismisses it as the settling of the rubble at first, but the sound persists. He notices in his investigation that there are sets of four throughout the home, but he could only identify three bodies. As he makes his way farther into the rubble, he hears the noise again, coming from the back of the hall. Approaching the cellar door slowly, he hears the noise. A cough? A sob?