The world is dying.
The Sunset Lands are broken, torn apart by a war of ideology paid for with the lives of the peasants. Drought holds the east as famine ravages the farmlands. In the west, borders slam shut in the face of waves of refugees, dooming all of those trying to flee to slow starvation, or a future in forced labor camps. There is no salvation.
In the city of Lord’s Reach, Seraphina, a slave with unique talents, sets in motion a series of events that will change everything. In a fight for the soul of the nation, everyone is a player. But something ominous is calling people to Lord’s Reach and the very nature of magic itself is changing. Paths will converge, the battle for the Sunset Lands has shifted, and now humanity itself is at stake.
First, you must break before you can become.
Hunger was the worst kind of pain. It was a churning in the gut, a constant gnawing emptiness that he’d do absolutely anything to fill. He’d run out of grain, save for a small sack he’d hidden in his outhouse, just in case. He’d eaten his last horse, its bones stripped and shining like gems in the harsh sunlight. Nothing but hollow ribs and skull left to stare at the barren sky.
It had been his favorite horse. He let it live until he couldn’t stand its baleful, accusing eyes, or the gaunt look of it. One day it just fell over, and Taub knew it was time. He slit its throat with his knife, sharpened the night before as if he’d been anticipating this event, and caught all the blood he could in a bowl, drinking it before it cooled. Then he’d gone about the business of cutting it up, unmaking the horse that spent so much of its life making his farm plentiful, and easier to work.
Life, in bite-size pieces.
He’d watched the land turn from fertile and green, to wasted and brown. There was no rain on the horizon, no storms in the sky, no hint of clouds. And Premier Eyad and his men were taxing him to death. Literally.
It had started with small erosions of liberties years ago. First, the Premier had imprisoned all the land owners, and sent them off to labor camps. He was ‘liberating the peasants,’ he’d said, and how Taub had rejoiced! Then he forced the peasants, farmers like him, to move onto communal farm plots where the government owned everything; from the grain they grew, to the tools they used, the cows they milked, and the houses they lived in. They were given one small row of dirt to grow their own food on, and everything else went to the state, to be divided as the Premier saw fit. Ration cards were supposed to keep everything fair, but that didn’t last long either.
When the drought struck Eyad determined that the grain should be moved to Lord’s Reach, where he could manage its distribution, for the benefit of the people. In the countryside, peasants like Taub suffered; rations growing smaller and smaller until they had ceased arriving altogether. Long after money had lost all value, soldiers still roamed the villages and farmland, demanding taxes for the Premier in the form of what goods and foodstuffs were left.
The system had been designed that way. Taub could see it now. Keep the peasants hungry enough so they were too weak to revolt, and the wealthy fat so they did not rise up.
The only good thing that came out of any of this was his new family, the others who had been forced to farm the land along with him. They’d raised their children as a group, lived as a group, and loved as a group. His wives and husband saw the writing on the wall, however. They left their land, taking their children with them, to look for a better life elsewhere. Taub had stayed behind, doggedly determined to protect his plot against anyone who might try to take it out from under him during the famine.
It had to end, right? Everything ended, eventually.
He knew now that staying had been a horrible decision. He wasn’t sure what he was protecting anymore. There was nothing left.
The days blurred until they all merged together into one homogeneous mass of events relentlessly stretching into an endless span of misery. It was worse than torture. Reality became frayed around the edges. He was changing. First, his stomach bulged out like he was with child, then it caved in until he could see the ridges of his spine poking through his belly like the weathered teeth of an ancient dragon.
It hurt to sit, his bones jutting out too far, so he lay down in the dirt and listlessly watched the days drift past him. Occasionally he’d muster up enough energy to look for sustenance. Once, a passing family went through his cabin in search for food and supplies. They poked him with a stick, think- ing he was dead. For a moment, they stood around his body, wondering if they should cut him up and eat him; but they decided that he didn’t have enough meat to make it worth the effort, and so moved on. He hadn’t had the strength to tell them he was alive, so he’d listened to them discussing whether or not he’d make a good dinner, their voices humming like mosquitoes, while his unblinking eyes watched the dust swirl into little eddies and dance across his farm in a macabre celebration of death.
After a while, his instinct kicked him, and he knew it was time to get up and try to live. He was far too wasted to leave his land now. He’d made his choice, and looking around his dry, barren farm, populated by nothing but memories of a fertile past, he knew this would be his grave. He would die here. One day he would lay down, and just never get up again. Like his favorite horse. He’d either waste away, or someone would eat him. Eat or be eaten.
If he didn’t at least try to live, he’d be on the losing end of that particular situation. He was glad his family wasn’t around to see him like this, now that he was nothing but a skeleton wrapped in brittle parchment skin, one breath away from an eternity of nothing, an hour from someone picking their teeth with his ribs.
His eyes were yellow. His teeth were falling out. His skin was sloughing off in chunks. And right when he was dazed, out of his mind with hunger and eating everything he could see, moving in that shuffle-shuffle way of the almost-dead, the soldiers from Lord’s Reach came to him.
They had orders, they’d said, to get the additional taxes required by Premier Eyad. He was too sick to argue, so far gone their words meant less than nothing to him, seeing as how he couldn’t eat them. So he watched the men, young and puffed up with health, impassively. Watched as they combed through his life and searched his land for whatever they could find. They dug through everything he had and took it, loading it onto their wagon, or strapping it to their fine, fit, beautifully meaty horses.
For their beloved Premier, so far away, living in his castle, surrounded by wealth and a city full of the well-fed rich, with no idea how Taub was suffering.
It was always for Eyad. He was the excuse, the equalizer, the murderer. Death by starvation. Annihilation by want. Eyad had greedily chewed up Taub’s life, and left him with a bitter pulpy residue, some warm memories, and a spit of dead land full of nothing but dried up, almost-forgotten yesterdays.
The soldiers took the beds and the blankets. They took the small sack of grain Taub had hidden in the outhouse and subsequently forgot- ten about. They even took the boards he’d used to make the new doors to his cabin. He’d been so proud of them, but the soldiers tore them apart and burned them for firewood while they camped on his land, not twenty feet from the house he was dying in. Cooking their gruel over flames while he starved, his ribs moving like strings on a lute each time he breathed out a rattling breath.
That was the first time he killed.
He didn’t know what he was doing. He smelled their food, and an animal rose up within him. It didn’t matter that they were armed and healthy. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t remember his last good meal, or that he was nothing more than skin stretched over bones that stuck out like knives. These men, these soldiers, couldn’t stand against him in his fury, and their food smelled so incredibly good.
It happened in a sudden rush. His survival instinct kicked in in a sudden rush, filling him with a strength he’d thought had long since wasted away. He ran to the fire, grabbed a burning branch, and before he knew what happened, two of them were lit up like candles. The one that was left grabbed a knife and slashed at him, but Taub had fire, and he threw his flaming stick, hitting his mark with a precision that surprised him.
Sometime during the fight their gruel had spilled across the ground. On his hands and knees, he licked it off the dirt while the soldiers’ bodies cooled around him like sentinels, their unblinking, melted eyes staring listlessly at the night-dark sky.
The scent of charred flesh hung in the air like a perfume, and he spent the next few hours using the soldiers’ own knives to chop up their bodies, cutting their meat into steaks, feeling their fat and gristle slide between his bony fingers like the promise of tomorrow, the dream of next year. He found a bag of salt in one of their packs, and would have wept with gratitude if he could still produce tears. As it was, his mind was already lost in plans, figuring out the best ways to preserve this much meat, eventually deciding to split it evenly between salting, smoking, and drying.
He was in the middle of salting steaks when someone happened past and stole the soldiers’ horses, along with the wagon and the remnants of Taub’s previous life; the happy, healthy life he’d lived in the time before. He let the thief go. He had three bodies to prepare, no energy left for the chase, and the extra meat the thief and horses could provide would only rot.
It was odd, on reflection, how his life had divided itself into neat, if conflicting, categories. Happiness and misery. Dreams and destitution. Before and after.
Soon, another family moved onto his land, and he welcomed them. He had enough meat to go around. They shared some dried root vegetables that they’d been saving for an occasion just like this one. They made a big, watery stew that tasted like heaven, like divinity in a bowl, and he felt full for the first time in weeks. Months. Years. Lifetimes. He ate until he was sick with it, and then lay back and watched the stars dance overhead, a midnight ballet just for him. When his visitors were satisfied and sleeping, he used the edge of his knife to draw dripping red smiles across their necks.
After that, he ate on a regular basis. Someone was always coming along, asking to sleep a night on his land. Desperate souls, each more wasted than the last, leaving somewhere horrible in the hope of something better, surviving on a diet of blind faith and scraps. They stopped at Taub’s farm, without realizing it would be the last place they’d ever rest their weary heads.
He knew how to use a knife to get the job done. He was merciless. He felt no guilt. The land was set against him. He fed the earth blood, and took what he needed in exchange. It was a simple payment and return calculation; give a little, get a little. This was war, and in war some people died. He salted their meat, kept it hidden, and ate it greedily.
He was eating more than he’d ever eaten in his life. His meals were huge, sprawling, meaty affairs that would take hours to consume, until he was sucking meat from bones, and then just sucking on bones. By the time he was finished, he’d be ready to start the next one. Even then, he never gained weight. His skin remained a sallow gray, hanging off his angular bones like drapes. His eyes stayed a jaundiced yellow. His teeth kept falling out, along with his hair. He looked like a skeleton wrapped in lace.
The more he ate, the hungrier he became. It was worse than the hunger pains he’d felt before, when starvation was singing him lullabies and eternal night whispered seductions in his ear. The need to devour was a horrible, clawing drive. He needed to consume more than he needed to breathe. Even with his hiding place overflowing with salted meat, and him managing huge meals each day, the weight, his healthy pallor, and his good skin never came back. Taub’s joints ached. His eyes stopped seeing anything save a blur of light and dark. The world ceased to exist, replaced by a relentless need to fill the gaping emptiness inside that threatened to swallow him whole.
Hunger was his siren song. He ate constantly, everything he touched disappeared inside him. He ate meat. He ate the bark off the trees and then he ate the trees. He ate dirt and rocks. He ate all of his clothes. He ate his fingernails and the skin off his hands. He ate his house. He ate his friends. He ate his memories.
But he tasted nothing, and the roaring emptiness inside him, the beast demanding its due, remained insatiable. Constantly urging him on, driving him to devour more and more.
He ate, never sleeping, never resting, never stopping. If he stopped eating, hunger would gnaw on his bones. He’d grow weak and sick. He’d feel like he was dying. But this wasn’t a drive borne of starvation. It was an inexorable need, fueled by fear—fear that he was next, that someone or something would devour him unless he devoured it first. Hunger hunted him, a wolf nipping at his gaunt, bony heels, urging him on, pushing until he became something unrecognizable. His existence was defined by his ability to ingest, to consume. He couldn’t live in the world unless he was taking every bit of it into himself. Stopping was impossible. Might as well ask a man to stop breathing.
So, he ate.
Until he’d eaten his humanity, and all that was left were his bones. Then, one day, there was nothing left on his land and the drive to devour pushed him on, herded him west. That black, yawning pit inside of him forced him beyond the bounds of the only life he’d ever known, away from the place he’d spent so many years working so hard for so little. But the void wasn’t satisfied. It would never be satisfied. He couldn’t stop. If he stopped even for a moment, pain would make him howl and scream like a ravaged beast.
Like a man with no future. Like a man who’d eaten his past.
He soon discovered that he wasn’t the only person eating his way across the Sunset Lands. No, he was far from alone. He moved in the trampled, desiccated rut created by those who came before. He walked through miles and miles of land that had been eaten down to the last insect, the last rock, the last tree, the last hope.
This wasn’t a drought or a famine. This was a wasteland, created by people just like him. They were the dread hosts of a new disease, carrying it with them, spreading it to others, a contagious curse wrapped in the gift of continuing life. They were hunger given shape, famine given form, living but not alive, dead inside, eaten out by the ruthless need to consume.
They weren’t people anymore, they were an infection and they were tainting the land. Poisoning it with need. Killing it with mastication, twisting everyone they came into contact with. Those who rejected their sickness, their hunger, their disease, were consumed; ingested, digested, turned into the fuel that strengthened what they were becoming. Lives erased from the world as though they’d never existed.
They moved ceaselessly forward, walking into the fiery eye of the setting sun, unmaking the world as they went.
Taub was but one among the army of the starved, creeping like a plague, leaving nothing behind them but the white, gnawed-on bones of the dead, and a land stripped down to empty desolation.
They were a battalion of bones with wasting skin and sickly yellow eyes. Devouring everything. Leaving nothing.
Not even memories.
Map of the Bloodlands