Prologue: In the Beginning…
The world was not always this way. It used to be simpler. There was harmony, and balance. But the humans began to grow weary of seeing what the other races could do. Elves had their magic, the Centaurs and Minotaurs roamed the plains as nomads, never stopping anywhere longer than a season so as not to worry the land too much. The humans, however, had very little. There was an average of one in a hundred humans who could use magic, and those humans were typically taken by the Elves to learn under the mages the healing arts of the Elves in an attempt to better the human race. Those who were blessed with only meagre magical talent usually hid it from the rest of the world or made a living by peddling cheap tricks and tonics, snake oil of the time.
Soon, however, the humans grew jealous and they began seeking out ways to better themselves without relying on the other races. Soon, friendships were formed between the humans and the dwarfs who had for so long been hidden underground that they had passed out of memory. Soon the trade began – leather and wool and vegetables from the sun for coal and ores. It was an excellent system, dwarfs began to stay with the humans for prolonged periods of time, teaching and learning. It was mutually beneficial. The humans lacked in strength what the dwarfs had, but they made up for it in cunning and intelligence.
The world began to change when the humans began their metalwork. Not only did they arm themselves with tempered steel, but they began to shod their horses. Soon, metal horseshoes and trinkets and jewelry became the standard for wealth. Soon women sported useless bits of metal on their wrists and fingers. The jewelry of the dwarfs was only surpassed by that of the elves, but the humans didn’t care. They had never before been treated as friends or trading partners. Soon, the bonds grew as strong as the metal they forged together.
Evolution continued, the longer the humans worked with the dwarfs, new ideas began to form. They worked together to create not only weapons but new ideas. Taking the wheels and reinforcing them was only the beginning. Soon, they had reinforced carriages, reinforced doors. Steel in their shoes every day.
And then one day, it was accidentally discovered that steam from boiling water in a pot could push things. And this sparked a whole new idea. If there was only a way to harness this power, they could put it in the tillers. They could save their horses. But then, not even that, what if they put it in their carriages? Long trips would no longer take such a heavy toll on their horses. They could carry their horses in carriages powered by the steam. And then they could expand.
The dwarfs thought this was a brilliant idea. They began working with the smartest humans they knew and soon the word spread through the small homesteads, through the small settlements that were so densely packed. Steam carriages! It was a dream come true! Work began immediately.
Soon, however, they found this to be a backbreaking endeavour. The steam-powered engines were heavy. Even with the combined powers of the dwarfs and the humans it was difficult and dangerous. No one was able to lift the steel chassis themselves, and even the rigging they built could not support the weight with a team of men holding it. Problem solving was further needed.
The humans talked for days, leaving work unfinished while they tried to come up with a solution. Unlimited muscle was needed but where could they get the resources to undertake this new expansion?
The plains people didn’t see it coming. They were at peace, in-between a seasonal migration, they weren’t prepared to defend themselves. The humans took advantage of it. They struck in the night, like thieves, unseen until it was too late to stop them. They arrived with torches and steel and their guns. The humans were teh only race to use such barbaric weapons, and the dwarfs liked the idea of a revolver. The humans were a terror. They started fires intentionally, burning the few tents the Centaurs set up for those who were to frail or too young to keep themselves warm at night. They started fires in the grass, to block the escape route. The came in on horses, guns blazing and tearing up the night sky. It took but a few moments to make the entire area awash in chaos.
The biggest, meanest one of all was an average, heavyset man with evil eyes and greasy hair. He shot to kill, never to main or wound. “What good is a useless slave?” He claimed. He rode in on a huge black horse, towering over the rest of the party under his control. He carried two guns, gleaming silver monstrosities that he wore at his hips. He dressed in the finest clothes he could get his hands on, all smoke and black. He didn’t even stop to let his men catch up. He was a hellbeast, bent on destruction and chaos.
It felt like an eternity for the Centaurs. They had no way to defend themselves. The screams of the wounded and dying were an unnatural blend of horse and human. The air stank of blood and fear and smoke. They panicked, trying to escape, only to find themselves on the ends of whips and chains and ropes. Children were left to weep over their parents’ corpses, if they were too young to work, they were left. Anyone wounded beyond the simple were shot then and there, Easier to euthanize them then risk having them warn the next encampment.
“Why are you doing this?” The Centaur chieftain demanded. He was a muscular creature, a chestnut brown thing of beauty. He was wounded on his shoulder, the blood red and glistening in the flickering light of the fires. “We are peaceful, we have done nothing to you. And you come here, with your guns in the night to kill my people? For what purpose?”
The heavyset hell-man stepped forward, his eyes dark and dead as he snarled in the face of the defiant chieftain. “You are lesser beings.” He spat. “And we have need of your services. You live on our land and you don’t contribute to our society. You eat the resources and plough the fields for yourselves and don’t give us anything. For too long you have lived here, sneering and jesting at the weakness of the humans, but we will no longer stand for it.”
The centaur eyed this man suspiciously and took a step forward. A hundred pistols levelled themselves at the Chieftain. He didn’t flinch. He took another step forward and the clicks of the guns echoed, threatening to release a hail of deadly metal shards.
“You have no right to us.” The Chieftain said defiantly. “You will not have my people.”
The heavy man stood his ground. “What are you going to do about it?” He sneered. “Die?” He barked a laugh. “What good is it if you’re dead? Nothing will have been accomplished, you’ll all just be dead and we will strip your bodies and your camp for anything valuable and move on to the next camp. But, you can come peacefully with us and you’ll live. You’ll work, but you’ll have food and water and you’ll live.”
“You have already killed my wife, and I can not see my daughter for all the smoke and carnage you humans have brought down upon us.” The word humans was uttered with such contempt that a shudder stole it’s way through the ranks of savage, bloodthirsty men. The Chieftain continued. “I have no reason to live. If my death should bring about the release of my people then I will be able to go into the great plains of the heavens and know that my death was not for nothing.”
The leader with the dead eyes began to laugh, but he was the only one. No one else seemed to get the joke. His laugh rang out in the still ngiht air, the sounds of the fire around them a quiet punctuation to his raspy chortle. The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a clean, embroidered handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes where tears of mirth had begun to well up. He sniffled once, dabbed his eyes and put the handkerchief back in his pocket. When he was comfortably composed again he turned his icy gaze back to the Chieftain.
“You really believe that, don’t you?” He asked with a hint of a smile.
The Centaur raised his handsome head proudly but said nothing.
“What a waste.” The ringleader said flatly.
In a blink, he had drawn his huge revolver and fired two, perfectly aimed shots at the Chieftain. One penetrating his chest and rupturing his heart and the other dead center of his forehead. The entire scene semeed to hang in the air, frozen, like a photograph. The Chieftain blinked once, his face still stoically blank. His hooves skittered slightly and he managed a small step forward, as though he was still going to defy the humans. Then reality came crashing back around them.
The Chieftain staggered and his knees buckled. He made no sound as he fell, and as his body hit the earth, it made a hollow thud. A scream pierced the air and the sound of hooves thundering against the the ground filled the empty spaces. A rusty female Centaur hurtled through the smoke, carrying a fire-sharpened lenght of wood like a spear. She rushed at the man who had shot the Chieftain, screaming obscenities in her own language, and the language of the Elves.
The man didn’t flinch, in fact, he held up his hand to stay the guns of his men. It happened in a heartbeat; the scream, the silent order for his men to stay their weapons, and his first two shots. The centaur dropped her weapon and dropped to her knees, her face contorted in pain and confusion. She pulled herself closer to her Chieftain, tears streaking her pale face. She didn’t even notice the blood.
The man in the suit walked towards her calmly, refilling his revolver from the pocket of his jacket. He stopped just out of her reach and looked her over.
“What is your name, wench?” He demanded.
The red-headed Centaur looked up at him with a scowl. “You ask my name, but not the name of the man you just killed?”
The cold eyes lit up in humour. “I see no point in asking for the name of a defiant criminal. But it’s always polite to ask the name of a lady.”
The girl spat at him.
The man pulled the hammer back on his newly-refilled revolver and aimed it at her face. “Should you like to end up like him?” He asked calmly.
There was only a tremor of terror on her otherwise blank face. “Better to die like him than serve a monster like you.”
A head tilt, a glimmer of recognition in his face and the man began to laugh under his breath. “He is your father isn’t he?” He asked gleefully. “Ah, the stupidity of children.” He crouched down to look directly into the Centaur’s face. “Yes, I see it now.” He smiled. “You know, if you weren’t a god-forsaken monstrosity and a freak of nature, I could find a use for you as a woman. You’re not entirely unattractive, from the waist up anyway.”
The girl lunged, forgetting about the bullet that had shattered her leg moments ago. A thick hand stopped her from gouging out his eyes. The man laughed again and shoved her down into the dirt.
“You are so weak.” He sneered. “Pathetic. You’re nothing like your father. At least he died a hero. You won’t even die a whore.” He stood then, aiming a well-placed kick to her ribs.
The girl coughed, sputtering a few more unintelligible words in his direction.
“What a waste of a beautiful half-human body.” He said loudly for the rest of his men to hear. “If she was an Elf, I’d have let you all had a chance with her, but she’s a freak. She is one of our slaves. And she is a criminal, attacking her master like that.”
The assembled men chuckled quietly amongst themselves.
“You, you freaks.” He continued, turning to where the rest of the Centaurs who were deemed ‘useful’ were trussed. “You will work for us now. You are ours by rights and by conquest. You will learn respect or you will end up like this.”
He turned to where the roan Centaur was struggling to get to her feet and abruptly emptied all six bullets from his gun into her body. Her mouth formed a little ‘O’ of surprise and she crumpled to the ground next to her father’s body.
The hell-man smiled a cruel little smile. “Pack them up.” He called to his assembled men, mounting his own horse. “They will have a few long days ahead of them.” He smiled again and spat in the direction of his two dead adversaries. The cruel man spurred his horse and rode in a wide circle around his group before rushing off into the distance, back towards the city where their captives would be put into slavery.
Tears began to fall across the cheeks of the captive Centaurs as they were led away, words of blessing and forgiveness passed their lips as they passed their fallen leader and murmurs of fear spread in their own language as they were dragged away from their homes, mourning would be put aside, fear was the emotion that gripped them as they cast their final glances on the carnage that had been brought down on them this night. The fires burned low as they were carted away, and only the carrion birds would be the mourners at the wake for the needlessly killed.