RUIN | Prologue | Sword 12th, Year 70. Night.

On my first day in the city of Helleborus, I sat in an underground room of black cobbled stone, and thought quietly to myself.

Nine others of my kind sat around me, shuffling on cold stone benches. It was the first time in my brief life that I had even encountered another Chimera. I knew others existed, theoretically. Several Illuminators I studied with recognized my species. I’d heard my brothers and sister’s names passed around more than once. I thought I might see one of them someday. Maybe.

I wondered if we were just in shock. Woken in the middle of the night. Immediately whisked away. Dropped in a room, no briefing, no obvious change in our missions or preparation for… whatever we were supposed to do. What could we say, under those circumstances? All Chimeras, reunited at last, and we didn’t have a single word to share.

Several of my kind tried to sleep, slumped into the corners or sinking down into the benches. One of the females slowly, carefully tried to braid her long hair, frequently fumbling. Another lady gripped a sheathed sword on her lap, eyes flicking back and forth across the room. I caught her eye a couple times, and despite holding it for several seconds, she’d always look away, back to glancing every which way.

I just stared, holding a knee against my chest, mouth hidden by my tightly folded hands.

Besides myself, there were five other… bulls? Bucks? Ganders? And four does. I think. Our features were such a hodgepodge, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the only male in the room. We were all roughly shaped like mankind, standing upright with the telltale five-fingered hands. Some of us had claws, or talons like myself, while others had sad little man nails. Most of us stood on hooves or paws instead of fleshy man feet. And like men, we were a menagerie of dull brownish colors… though I noticed I wasn’t the only Chimera with this dead-looking gray skin.

But unlike the man kind, all but one of us had a pair of wings on our back. A relieved part of me enjoyed the tense shifting of limbs as my siblings attempted to fold their oversized wings comfortably. They were heavy, bulky things, and the benches left little space between our backs and the wall. I just set aside my propriety, and let my wings fold around my arms, hanging loose on either side of me.

Shifting my head in my hands, I looked towards the only one of us without wings. A big buck, the biggest here, well over two meters, with copious muscles and body hair. His hands looked manlike, ending in short and thick talons. He sat alone on his own bench, straight across from me, casually sharpening a knife with a stone. The steady wheck, wheck, wheck was the only sound in the underground chamber.

Muscle Buck eventually set aside his whetstone, and held the blade up to his eye. I suppose that was when he noticed I was staring at him. He returned my gaze steadily, over the knife’s edge. He must’ve held it there for several minutes, turning the knife back and forth, staring at scrawny, glass-eyed me, before he finally spoke.

“What?” he grunted.

 Deep voice… so likely a male. One of the hen’s head jerked up, blinking around the room blearily. Someone coughed. There was even more uncomfortable shuffling, clothes and wings rustling.

I didn’t move, eyes still locked up on the massive male’s.

I actually had no idea what to say.

The bull grunted, “What’s your name?”

“Ruin,” I said, “Yours?”

“Carnage.”

He nodded, and picked up his whetstone. Wheck, wheck, wheck. There was apparently nothing more to say.

“So…”

I shifted my head in my hands, turning to look. One of the other ganders had spoken, a yellow-furred thin beast, who looked like a man of grace and elegance. I wondered what life he was assigned that made his body transform so.

“W-well,” the yellow one stammered, “I guess we’re all named, you know, like that?”

“Like what?” I asked.

“You know,” He waved to himself, “I’m Snap. My name.”

“Like, dangerous things?” another mumbled, “The name’s Quake.”

“I’m Shatter,” yet another spoke, looking out of heavy black bangs. “I guess it is… I don’t know, a theme?”

Finally, the nervous female spoke.  Her hands tightened on her sword.  “Why would Father do that? Call us cruel names?”

I shrugged, wings rolling with my shoulders. “Chalk it up to his sense of humor?”

The woman gripping the sword frowned, face turning sour.

“Humor? No!” Carnage barked, making several of the Chimera jump. “He’s granted us a sense of purpose! And unity! Despite the disparity in our assignments, we have similarities!”

I scoffed. “What, in something as simple as our names?”

He nodded firmly towards me. “It’s cultural unity! The same as any man, beast, or vermin kind!”

“Rodent kind,” Snap interrupted, smiling, almost embarrassed. Carnage huffed and rolled his eyes.

“So then…” Snap spoke up, wings eagerly lifting in anticipation. “I suppose, let’s introduce ourselves? Like I’ve said, I’m Snap. Um… and a lord. I’m only nine so… I suppose that makes me pretty young, huh?”

The female next to him shook her head, “I’m not much different. I’m Brawl, I’m a lady, and I’m nine.”

“Hush,” another pale chimera said with voice that ground like rough gravel, despite looking no older than a man of fourteen or fifteen. He said nothing more.

They went around the room, introducing themselves. Almost nobody was older than a decade. Only the chick with the sword, apparently named Lunge, and I were in our teens. Carnage proudly announced himself to be in his early twenties, to a small amount of applause.

“Does that make you our oldest brother, Carnage?” Wrack asked.

“Are you the first born?” Quake asked excitedly.

He shook his head, though he continued to grin in a crooked sort of way. He seemed to rather like the attention.

“Third born,” he announced, “But much further down the line, if you count stillborns.”

“So, where is the first-living-born?” a male called Shatter asked. “Are we still missing some of our number?”

Carnage shook his head, “No. Dead, the both of them. From complications our Father could not correct in time. Though, one fought in the glory of battle! With the god of Bravery, no less!”

“Wow…”

“Bravery?” Snap asked, frowning, “Um, the First God or…?”

Carnage beamed proudly as he tried to explain to Snap what had happened to our late ‘sister.’ It was a sloppy explanation, clearly unaware of details or facts, like he just heard it distantly offhand. Still, Snap nodded proudly along, as if any explanation that made his sister into a hero was a good one.

“Twelve in our litter huh…?” I mumbled. Carnage huffed.

“In our family,” he asserted, “You had fifteen brothers and sisters, not littermates!”

“I didn’t know there was an official term for us,” I replied flatly.

“There is now.” Carnage barked cheerfully. “We get to decide, and we’ve decided to be brothers and sisters! Got it?”

He nodded to each Chimera in turn, not even pausing to see if they agreed or not. Some among our numbers shuffled and shrugged, none coming out with an alternative. Either by elder status, looming size, or sheer force of personality in a still-uncomfortable situation, Carnage’s statements were accepted by the room.

Eventually, in trying to muster our rapport, Carnage’s eyes landed on the final doe. The one still slowly trying to braid her hair. She still struggled with a single fat knot, fingers fumbling. She was knotting her hair more than anything else, making it messier by the minute.

“You haven’t spoke yet, little sister!” Carnage said, “Tell us your name.”

The little doe blinked, and stared up at the massive Carnage. Her fingers were firmly stuck in her slowly unweaving hair.

“Your name and age!” he demanded.

Her wings ruffled at Carnage’s booming voice. Her fingers dove even deeper into her hair as she shrunk away, flinching as she bumped into Lunge’ shoulder.

“Don’t be shy!” he insisted, “We’re all family here!”

“Don’t push her, Carnage,” I said suddenly, “She might not be able to speak.”

Carnage huffed again, folding his meaty arms. “Of course she can speak. If she couldn’t, Father would have fixed her voice.”

“Still,” I said. I leaned my head into the other hand, covering one ear. My wing shifted out of the way, better able to glance at the dismayed hen. I caught the doe’s silent gaze immediately, and she stared steadily back at me.

“Do you understand me?” I asked. “You don’t have to say anything. Just nod if you can hear me.”

Slowly, fingers a bloodless tan in her tangled hair, she nodded towards me.

“Hear… yes…”

“So!” Carnage barked, “Your name?! Age?!”

I sighed as she flinched again, slowly looking between me and Carnage. She was so slow, so careful and methodical, yet her movements seemed unnatural. Cumbersome. All instinct, barely any thought.

I noticed, of all things, her fingers slowly drifting out of her tangled hair. They looked very human-like, soft and unknotted. No welts of new growth, or layered skin of old transformations. In fact, a lot of things about her seemed almost soft and bloblike. Her rounded cheeks. Her large eyes. The clean skin of her exposed arms and legs. With her darker skin, it almost looked like she was freshly molded from wet clay.

She mumbled, “Name… Age… No, don’t…”

“No what?” I asked.

 “No. No no.”

“Is the big guy scaring you?” Lunge asked softly, placing a hand on the little one’s shoulders.

She shook her head, “No. Not thing. No zero.”

“Zero what?” Snap asked, “Is that your name?”

I sunk back against my folded leg, wings retreating. This could go on for ages if I let it. I turned to Carnage, lifting my head and loudly clearing my throat.

“Hey ‘big brother,’” I said, “Just look at her. I think our sister’s a baby. She can’t even be a year old.”

“Huh…” Lunge reached over, and casually untangled the kid’s hair. “She looks the same as all of us…”

“Well!” Quake proclaimed, “Well, it’s hard to tell, isn’t it?”

“Dunno about you all,” Shatter grumbled, “But I’ve never had to tell before.”

“No! No, of course we havn’t…” Snap mumbled, fading out slowly as he stared over at his trembling little sister.

There was a distant boom, muffled by the chamber, and yet loud enough to finally get the most staunch sleeper (Hush, was it?) to look up. It sounded like a distant landslide, or when a great rock finally splits open and slams into the ground. I could have sworn the dark cobblestone shivered a little under us.

Lunge closed her eyes, and mumbled, “Please, not another cave-in…”

“Father wouldn’t bring us all here to bury us,” Carnage asserted, “We wouldn’t be here for such a small purpose.”

I said, “You sure seem to think you know Father well.”

“I’ve known him for the longest!” Carnage huffed, puffing up proudly.

“Must be nice…” Snap mumbled. “I felt like I didn’t get to know either Father much. I just worked… or did work, with some merchants in Chaparral. I didn’t see either Father much at all.”

“Same,” Lunge said, “Border mine. Worked with the troops there.”

“They’re busy, is all,” Quake spoke up, “I saw Charity the most, and even then… the gods have a lot to worry about.”

Shatter snorted. “Charity?”

“Worked in his personal Sanatorium,” Quake explained. “He was a good man… distracted sometimes, but a good man.” She trailed off, shrugging her shoulders awkwardly. Her eyes wandered up to the ceiling, frown growing lower the longer the silence lasted. “Seriously,” she said, “Why are we even here? They made me leave patients behind!”

“Who cares?” Shatter snorted, folding his arms, “We were just spinning our damn wheels at our last jobs, right? Whatever Father asks us, it’s a thousand times more important than our old lives.”

I glanced around the room. There was a silence, a shuffle of wings. Eyes diverted up and down. Quake’s face only got more sour, while Lunge seemed almost forlorn, staring down at her sword.

“I liked my old job…” I found myself muttering. But nobody heard. It was fine. I didn’t want to pick a fight with those of my own kind.

“Our old lives were important,” Carnage boomed, his powerful voice making the sleeping hen Brawl jump. “They prepared us, for here, and for now. Our new, united purpose.” He nodded firmly, grin lopsided. “You’ll see. It’ll be—“

He didn’t get to finish his sentence. Or if he did, I wasn’t paying attention anymore. Our chamber had begun to change.

The room had no windows or doors. Each of us were ushered in by Father’s portal magic, and I was certain we would be leaving the same way. And yet, on one wall, there appeared a flash of green aura. Snap and Brawl both stared at a new object hanging serendipitously between their heads. It looked like some kind of solid wooden branch, thick as my wrist. With a quiet grinding, it began to turn, and then expand.

My fellow Chimeras scattered from the wall as the wooden stick became a wooden tube, then a wooden ring, then a wooden hoop. As it expanded, it melted through solid stone. Thick clumps rolled and dribbled down to the floor, where it seemed to flatten and seep slowly through the cracks. Eventually the tube rolled into a large, rounded doorframe, revealing a hallway beyond.

For a moment, we were all still. Some of my brothers looked stunned. I wondered why. This was not a particularly amazing feat of magic. At least, it wasn’t when you lived around the versatile Sylphs. I stepped forward, and let my foot tap the melted floor. It seemed solid enough. Wasn’t even warm at all.

Then, as suddenly as the root appeared in the wall, we received instructions from our Father.

I was overwhelmed by a flood of images. Sounds. Feelings, and motivations. No words, no solid instructions. Just impressions, and overwhelming, unplaceable emotions. I quickly lost my sense of my body, of my hands and legs holding me up, and was lost in a dreamlike vision.

My heart was carved out, replaced by a beating rock. Flashes of creatures, the heavy beat of wings. Screaming. Blood. Black blood, dripping from cracked bones. Towers as high as the clouds, the sky swirling with gray. The elation of purpose, beating in my own guts, twisting them until I splattered open.

My eyes suddenly refocused around me, vision fading. I had toppled over in… whatever the hell that was. I don’t know how I got instructions from that mess. But I knew what I had to do, the ringing purpose rooted firmly in my mind. And from the looks on everyone else’s faces, they understood just as clearly.

We quietly lined up and exited the room. A hallway carved itself around us. Stone weaved itself into netted bars, and rooms carved out behind them, stone pushed aside by more curling roots. Paths were cut upward and downward, floor rising and falling in slow circles. We followed a ramp upward, out of the underground and into the streets.

Not that you could tell much of a difference. The stone floor remained the same dark material, the walls around us simply turning into buildings and avenues. The only change was the roof fell away, and was immediately replaced by a higher ceiling of dark clouds.

I hadn’t seen much of the city before my arrival. It was a trading post on the country border, a crafter’s city. A black sprawl of mismatched buildings, rising up a gentle hill. But now I could see even less of it, as the open sky of the great hilly plains had been replaced by walls so tall, they dove into the overcast sky.

Silently, we poured into those enclosed streets, and began our very first hunt.

The first catch was a woman kind. She turned to us, angry, and opened her mouth as if to ask a question. She barely got her words together before Carnage drove his nails deep into her gut. She keeled over his claws, breathless, eyes bulging.

Carnage grunted, and drove his fingers deeper. Blood ran down his hand and splattered on the ground. It was red. The wrong color. But that’s what we were here for.

“Portal!” Carnage growled, “Need portal!”

“Here,” I heaved.

With a twitch of my fingers, magic pulsed through my thick claws, perfect for casting magic. I ripped a hole in the shadows, creating a tunnel connecting dark to dark. An image of the cell we just passed appeared in the pool.

I barked, “The man cells. Here. Toss in.”

Carnage heaved the body around, and dumped it into the shimmering image. We didn’t even watch.  The woman fell through, and hit the distant floor with a quiet ‘thud.’

“Smash Sylph heads,” I hastily explained, “Break gems, so they can’t magic.”

My brothers and sisters nodded around me. We didn’t even know if there were Sylphs in this city. We just knew we had to carry out Father’s will. That was the end and the beginning of our thoughts.

“Teams!” Snap babbled, “I portal too. Split up!”

“Yes!” Carnage barked, pulling knives out from his sleeves, gripping them between his bloody fingers. “Good! Follow!”

We moved through the alleys and between towers as if we had lived here all our lives. I walked with Lunge and two others, and opened portals as soon as she sliced into anyone who dared be outside on this unholy night.

My first catch was a lazy tabby cat, curled at the foot of a roughly hewn stoop. I grabbed him by the neck, ignored his tired complaints. With no weapons at my disposal, my magic entirely nonlethal, I smashed his body into the wall.

He yowled and screeched in pain, demanding “Why?! Who?! Why?!” But I ignored him, smashing him against the wall again, listening for the crack of ribs.

He spat blood, from a broken tooth or a punctured lung, I didn’t care. It was enough. I pooled together the shadows and dumped him into the portal, dropping him into the netted cell for small beasts and rodents.

I hoped he suffered, he needed to suffer, for Father’s sake!

Something grabbed my arm. I considered smashing this new body in the wall as well, but luckily, I turned to see my youngest sister. She seemed calm, better than she was in that tiny room, at least. She stared up at me through her tangled bangs, eyes filled with a mild, disinterested confusion.

“Why?” asked the youngest Chimera. “This why?”

“Well, because…!”

I opened my mouth to answer. Yet, even as purpose possessed me, I could not answer her question.