The full moon shone brightly upon the dense canopy of the virgin forest, faint beams of moonlight reaching through to the earth below. A gentle summer's breeze raked the treetops, warming the creatures that had gathered in the clearing by the lake. Hundreds of animals had formed a semi-circle around the great rock which ancient paws had carved. The air was full of the chatter of countless species, producing a din the likes of which were seldom heard in those empty lands. Wolves and bears rubbed shoulders with deer and horses while rats and weasels scurried underfoot. In the trees, the creatures of the air perched attentively—eagles and pigeons, hawks and gulls, falcons and crows, owls and bluejays. A few of those animals that could do so carried torches, for the benefit of those animals whose night vision was not as keen as the rest. A silence fell over the assembled beasts as a wolf, ancient and scarred yet almost regal in its disposition, approached the rock and began to howl and bark at the assembly. Any man who happened to pass through those woods would have heard nothing more than the cries of an animal—but courtesy of whatever miracle had brought these creatures together in ancient time, the animals who stood in that clearing understood every syllable from the wolf's maw.
"Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye!" howled the wolf. "Bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justiciaries, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and to all bailiffs and liege subjects of the realm! It is my honor to present to you, his Royal Highness, by the Grace of God, King of the Forest, Lord of the Plains, Duke of the Grand Fir and the Undergrowth, Count of the Swamp, Margrave of the Hills, Warden of All the Streams and Rivers, and Lord Protector of the Cities of Man, Defender of the Faith, and so on, and so on, and so on, King Andrew the Fourth."
The animals assembled on the ground fell to their knees and laid their heads on the ground, and the birds tucked their heads into their breasts, as King Andrew IV trotted into sight atop the great rock. The king was a young fox, having barely been a yearling when his father Eugenio VII was killed by barbarians the previous year. He wore no adornments but a simple crown upon his head, the same that had been passed down from king to king since the days of the Exodus. A moment passed in silence as Andrew surveyed the crowd before him, and gestured for his herald to come near. Those who dared to look upward at his majesty would have seen a look of awe and terror on the wolf's face as Andrew chuffled silently to him.
"And may I further present," the wolf cried hesitantly, "as his majesty's guest for the evening—His Holiness, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God, Pope Innocent the Twenty-Seventh."
The contrast between Andrew and Pope Innocent could not have been more obvious as the deer climbed to the top of the stone and stood beside the king. Unlike the simple crown Andrew wore, Innocent was covered head to toe in elaborate vestments, the finest that the raccoons and apes of the land could sew, and a miter nearly half a meter tall, bedecked with gold and jewels, rested between his antlers. The assembled animals rose to their feet with reverence as Andrew nodded, and Innocent touched his snout to his chest three times, making the sign of the cross as best he could.
"Our friends!" Andrew began, barking as loud as he could so that he could be heard by all the animals. "Knights, nobles, peers of the realm, and peasants and serfs alike—hear us this night, for a threat has come to our lands that imperils not only our nation, but all of Christendom itself! Not since the time of the Exodus have our people known such an enemy as the heathens which now return to this land to resume their ancient debaucheries—the vile forces of the nation of man."
A commotion arose from the crowd at the mention of that last word. Cries of doubt and skepticism arose from the masses. "Who among you recall the tales you were taught as children?" Pope Innocent called out, silencing the crowd. "As surely as every word of the Holy Scripture is true, so are those stories true—for before the coming of plagues and the scourging of the Earth, every corner of the world was ruled over by the kingdom of man. Though they claimed to follow Christ—for Christ Himself delivered His Gospel first to man before we of the forests came to know it—they had grown bold and arrogant, and knew not the true teachings of the church of their fathers. And believing that nothing existed that could not be seen, they enslaved your ancestors, the true followers of Christ, and kept them in their prisons while sinners and Protestants roamed free across these forests.
"But your ancestors kept the faith, and God rewarded them. For just as He scourged the Earth of wickedness and spared Noah, so He cleansed the Earth of mankind, and again we were free to sing the songs of the Lord and be fruitful."
"For six hundred years," King Andrew proclaimed, "no man has been seen in our forest. But not a fortnight ago, the Duke of the West Reach and his knights vanished while surveying the eastern reaches. Baron Simon and his eagles were dispatched to seek out any trace of them—and when they caught a whiff of roasted venison—" he paused as the animals reacted to the horror of imagining the good Duke roasted for food—"he spotted the men who had taken our knights and cut them limb from limb, to roast alive and feast upon, and the great heathen temple they have erected—forged from the wood of our own trees which they have felled, and built on the very spot of King Edward I's final victory over the Protestant horde!"
"The humble mice who scouted their shrine have witnessed the proof that even the divine wrath of God was insufficient to convince these men of their sinful nature," the Pope shouted. "They have built a thing of mockery, in the style of the ancient cathedrals men built before they lost their way—but this is not a place of God. They worship a man who they claim died and rose again, but this man was known to your ancestors during the Captivity as little more than a conjurer of cheap tricks, his only gifts coming from a simple trinket that no doubt was forged by the Devil himself! They have made idols out of their ancient books that they parrot without understanding, and wear the icons of the ancient despoilers upon their gowns! These men are no friends to Christ or to Christendom—and with our nation, there can be no hope of alliance."
"The east has fallen to these heretics already!" Andrew shouted. "They have already slain the good Duke and his knights. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them! They will make this land their own! They will take from us that which we have for centuries tended and built! They will give no quarter for women and children, and nothing shall await you but the plow—or the spit! Whatever petty quarrels you have had amongst yourselves, this is the time to forget them—for now we face a greater foe!"
Pope Innocent lowered his voice as he exhorted the crowd. "Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. In ancient time, the righteous among mankind waged wars of the cross against the heathens of their day. I, or rather the Lord, beseech you now—take up tooth and claw, and prepare for crusade! So your Church wills it!"
"So your king wills it!" cried Andrew.
"So God wills it!" responded Innocent.
"God wills it! God wills it! God wills it!" The cry of the crowd reached from treetop to treetop, echoing throughout the forest.
The grass crackled under Brother Gareth's sandals as he trod down the overgrown trail that had, centures before, been a massive highway. His eyes darted constantly along the treeline, watching for any movement in the undergrowth. He was not accustomed to loneliness, for Overwatch was always teeming with hundreds of doctors and priests and D-Castes. Out here, loneliness was both a curse and a boon, for at least it meant he had thus far eluded the enemy's spies. The Holy Amulet, wrapped in a strip of hide for his protection, drummed against his chest under his thick brown robe. He held his hand against his chest to steady it, tracing its patterns through the fabric as he said a quick prayer to the man within.
It had been nine days since Cardinal Andrews had told him to leave Overwatch Cathedral alone and take the Amulet east to Shyton for safekeeping. Thanks to the Neutralizationist zealots who had breached the Peace of Westmont when they attacked and reclaimed the Seventy-Third chapel, the tensions between the Holy Foundation and "the kingdom of Romania Nova", as the "liberated" men whose homes had fallen under its rule called it, had erupted into the sixth crusade in thirty years against the animals and their strange religion that honored neither the Lord Bright nor His saints and prophets. The animal forces had gained ground and had been within a day's march of Overwatch itself when he left. That the Holy Foundation would win the day, he had no doubt; but the Amulet was not safe so close to those creatures that regarded it as no better than the rest of the demons that haunted the world.
Gareth paused a moment and sat on a log to drink from his waterskin. His body ached from the long walk, and his head was heavy. There were not known to be any of the demon-possessed beasts in these woods, but one could never tell from appearances whether the crow or the deer or the mouse skittering along the road was just concerned with its next meal, or whether it was watching and reporting to its superiors. He had rested little, and slept even less. A few more days and he and his burden would be safe behind the great walls of Shyton, the sea at his back. Safe to relax, and rest, and…
Gareth recoiled in shock and horror as something touched his shoulder, awakening him from the slumber he had fallen into. He had slipped up, and it had cost him. Dazed by the midday sun as his eyes darted open, he stumbled around to face the thing that had accosted him, reaching as he did so for the knife on his belt.
"Forgive me, friend," said the traveler in black who stood before him. "I meant only to ensure that you were well."
"I… I'm sorry," Gareth said as he lowered his knife. "I haven't seen anyone on the road in days. I feared I was under attack."
"Understandable," the man replied. "These are… dangerous times, and few would dare this lonely road. What brings you this way?"
"I am…" Gareth searched his head for a lie to conceal the nature of his mission. "I am a humble sculptor on my way to Strait City, in search of work and a patron. There is little call in the western lands for a man of my profession, on account of the war."
"Indeed?" the traveler said. "It is the war that calls me westward. What news have you heard from the front?"
"Very little," Gareth said, hoping to put an end to the man's uncomfortable questioning. "I try not to concern myself greatly with matters of church and state."
"You must have some opinion," the man said. "Are you one of the Traditionalists who holds that the Scripture is inerrant? Or are you a Neutralizationist, believing that the Holy Containment Procedures must be rewritten, and the church ought to destroy the demons rather than imprisoning them? Or perhaps your sentiments lie with the animals and their God?"
"I know nothing of the theological disputes the church is having amongst itself, friend," Gareth said.
"I am all too familiar with them, sir sculptor," said the traveler. "Many years ago I was occupied all my days in observing and recording their petty squabbles. But now I am… free of that obligation." Gareth noticed for the first time the notch carved into the man's left ear—the mark of a slave sold to the Foundation, or an outlaw taken by its knights for his crimes, and pressed into the D-Caste. "Now I am engaged in a different sort of occupation."
"And what might that be?"
"I was seeking a man traveling this very road," the man said as Gareth's worst fears were realized. "I was asked to find a churchman carrying a very special object to Shyton."
"I have seen not a soul since I passed St. Lament," Gareth lied. "and there are certainly no men of the cloth in that disreputable city. Where did you hear such a ridiculous thing?"
"A little bird told me," the man said with a grin.
"Well, best of luck to you then," Gareth said, "but I have lost enough time and should be on my way."
Gareth's heart sank as the man stood in his path and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I must ask a simple thing of you, my friend. I was told that the man I sought wore a particular object around his neck. Might you permit me to see what hangs on the chain you are wearing?"
"It is a simple mememto, good sir, and you have no right to accost me about it. Now please unhand me."
"Be reasonable," said the escaped slave. "If you are not the man I seek, then I mean you no harm, but I must know for certain." The man reached for Gareth's necklace and grasped the chain. In a flash, Gareth drew his knife from its sheath and plunged it into the man's stomach. He gasped as the blade found home, his grip on Gareth loosening as Gareth drew the blade out and stabbed home again and again.
"Forgive me, huntsman," Gareth said as the man fell to his knees, "but I can allow none to stand in the way of the Lord's work."
"And forgive me, doctor," the hunter said as he struggled for breath, "but none can stand in the way of the one true God. Laudate Deum!"
Gareth never heard the wolf coming until it lunged at him from behind, knocking him to the ground like a rag doll. He tried to turn and attack it with his knife, but the jaws of the beast found his wrist and his weapon dropped to the ground. Another wolf was on him in an instant, and soon the air was filled with the chatter of lesser creatures gathering all around him. The last thing he felt before he lapsed into unconsciousness was the chain around his neck snapping as one of the dogs pulled it from him.
"This is your fault, Second," the Seventh said. "We should have sent a knight, or better yet, a whole company."
"We all agreed that would draw too much attention! A lone traveler was less apt to be noticed by their spies."
In the chamber above, a D-Caste draws a handmade shiv from his robes and stabs a guardsman through the heart.
"And yet he was found, Second. And he is dead, and the Holy Amulet missing. The evidence is incontrovertible—the Lord Bright is in partibus infidelium. The time for debate and inaction is over. I demand that the Council immediately order the commission of Procedure Escheat against all lands occupied by the animals, in accordance with Holy Containment Procedure 1845, and neutralize them once and for all."
"You would escalate this crusade even further?" the Third asked. "It was your Neutralizationist nonsense that got us into this predicament!"
The two watchmen guarding the armory are no match for the dozen D-Caste that attack them. In the dark, they arm themselves.
"Lord Bright never intended the Holy Containment Procedures to be unchanged forever," the Seventh said. "It is known that the ancients changed them constantly. Nor did he mean for no demon to ever be destroyed—else He would not have left us the instructions to do so. It was right that we attacked the Seventy-Third chapel and destroyed the world-of-snow, for if they had learned to make it work a great doom would have befallen us."
"Each of the 'demons', as you call them," rebutted the Third, "is a unique creation and a memory of the ancient world! There will never be another like it, and each one you destroy takes us one step further from re-learning that which has been lost!"
The guardhouses are taken, and the sleeping soldiers are easily locked in their barracks and kept out of trouble. The D-Caste close the gates and seal the front door of the cathedral and begin to make their way into the catacombs.
"If Lord Bright is truly among the heathens," the Thirteenth said, "perhaps He will be able to make them see the error of their ways. We must allow him time to win them over to the church."
"Can we afford to take that chance?" the Seventh asked. "Every missionary we send into their lands ends up dead. Every city they win from us, they tear down our chapels and burn our Holy Doctors alive. They would just as soon destroy the Holy Amulet—and deny us the guidance and counsel of our Lord for all time—as listen to Him!"
"This is heresy! If we do as you propose, we would be just as likely to destroy the Amulet ourselves, or lose it forever in the chaos! I'm sure you Neutralizationists would love nothing more but than to be rid of our Lord as well, but-"
"Gentlemen!" The First shouted. "This is not the time or place to argue the merits of Neutralizationism! The Seventh has made a proposal—let us vote on it in the traditional manner."
"Nay!" the Third said. "I shall keep no secret of where I stand on this issue—and may no other man or woman in this room fail to do the same."
Outside the meeting hall, the Omega Guard, swords and crossbows in hand, stare down two dozen orange-robed D-Castes with steel of their own. The sergeant nods to his men, and the guards lay down their weapons. The leader of the D-Caste smiles.
"The matter has been decided, Seventh," said the First. "The vote stands nine to four. This Council will not act to neutralize the animals at this time."
"Then I and my compatriots have nothing further to say at this time," the Seventh said as he rose to his feet with the Ninth, Fourth, and Twelfth. "We shall be taking our leave. Guard, open the door."
No sooner had the door guard begun the traditional knock than the door began to slide open. The four walked towards the door—as dozens of D-Caste, armed to the teeth, swarmed in and formed a circle around them. The door guards barely had time to draw their swords before the rebellious slaves' steel felled them - and, blood on their swords, they stared down the remaining members of the Council still at their desks.
"What is the meaning of this?" the First shouted. "This is heresy! This is treason!"
"This is the tide of progress overwhelming tradition," the Seventh said as he turned to the leader of the group. "Take these milquetoasts to the dungeon, and then send the word that the ancient fire is to be released into the western lands. Burn the forests. Burn the prairies. Burn the villages. Drive every last one of those animals out, and every last man who sides with them. Kill them all—the Lord Bright will know His own."
The wind blew lazily over the barren hillside that weeks before had been verdant and full of life. Only a few blades of grass, here and there, erupted from the scorched moonscape. Nothing stood but the blackened stumps of great trees. Great mounds of ash scattered in the wind, the remnants of those animals the knights had gathered up and incinerated en masse. For hundreds of kilometers the devastation extended, a testament to the greatest fire the world had seen since the Great Breach itself.
In the skies above, a lone crow glided in search of food. It was a long way from its home and knew nothing of what doom had befallen this place—it knew only that it was hungry and could find no food. Its eye caught a glint of light in a hollow hundreds of feet below. It was too shiny to be food, but perhaps another animal had been hoarding whatever it could find and had stashed the shiny object with some nuts or acorns? After determining that whatever creature had stashed the gleaming thing was nowhere in sight and would cause no trouble, it swooped down to investigate its find.
The crow dug at the ground around the piece of metal that protruded from the ground. It wasn't food, nor was it even one of the things that humans sometimes stored food in—just one of the shiny little baubles they liked to wear. Disappointedly, the crow nudged it aside to see if there was anything underneath.
Well, it thought to itself, this is certainly different.