For as long as humanity has been capable of advanced thought, of looking upon the world around them with questions in their head of how it all worked, so too have the gods existed. While those early gods may not have possessed the power they reached at the height of the great Era of Myth, they always had, at the least, a mote—even if the gods themselves were not aware of it, or themselves.
During an age when civilization was a novel concept, a people had migrated a great distance and came upon a land of bountiful forests and seas after traversing craggy hills and parched deserts. There they decided to settle, marveling at how the sea was but a short journey in three directions, and in the fourth, a narrow strip connecting them to a much larger expanse.
There’d be no safer place to erect homes, no better vantage from which to gather, hunt, and fish.
They had not traveled the entire distance alone, however. At some point in their journey, a large pack of ebon jackals had taken to them. The slight jackals much preferred to shadow the hunters and feast upon the remnants than do work themselves, and being the clever canines they were, possessed an almost instinctual drive to follow along with the strange, two-legged creatures.
Of course, the hunters and other nomads would attempt to drive off the jackals, even hunt them, but they saw little success. One or two beasts might be slain and they’d temporarily scare off the pack, but the creatures always came back. They were rather adamant about wanting to be as lazy as they could manage when it came to acquiring meals.
Curiously, at some point, the hunters noticed a thinning of other predators, chief among them the bears and wolves. During one stretch of migration there had been a number of animals they’d never seen before. They were large, fur-covered and four-legged like a wolf, but instead of a coat of grays and browns, it was striped and orange, had smaller ears and a squished-up face. They tended to be alone like a bear, but also much more aggressive.
Yet they too became sparse after a time.
All the while, the jackal prospered.
Eventually, people began to put two and two together, even when the concept of numbers was still new and exciting. This did not mean the people accepted them, for they were still predators and, much to the dismay of shepherds, would still attack sheep and goats.
A sort of love-hate relationship continued for generations upon generations by the time they reached the peninsula. The nomads had grown in number. So too did the pack. And as the generations passed, so did questions about the world arise. Yet, unlike most peoples who believed that the spirit passed on someplace else or was reborn as a new life, the nomads became firm believers in nothing.
Life was precious and rare and was to be enjoyed and celebrated, if only because after life, there was nothing. This was not necessarily a bad thing, because in nothing, there was no pain or despair, no worry or want. Eternal peace. A respite from the rigors of life. Yet this outlook wasn’t one of gloom, for they still believed that life teemed with purpose—mainly to create new life and provide for those who would come after.
The ebon jackal, their companion for some thousands of years, became a focal point of this belief. Their appetite and willingness to consume just about anything had an effect on the burgeoning beliefs of the humans.
When a person—or anything—died, they would become trapped in the grip of death, mired in place by rot and decay. There would be no release to oblivion and an end to suffering would take many months, if not longer.
Enter the jackal. The Death Eater.
They were nature’s solution, nature’s agent of release.
And they were quite adept at bringing new life into the world, built upon the death they consumed.
In time, the settlement became a village, and then a town. In time, they began to venerate the jackal. In time, husbandry between man and jackal developed. While not quite to the level of pet, they began to live together.
During one generation, belief in The Great Mother, The Merciful Void arose. The Great Mother ate all death, releasing all to oblivion.
In their language, she was called Sartessorinova.
In that generation, an ebon jackal the size of which they’d never seen strolled into the town. She had come.
Under Sartessorinova’s guidance, they’d become an economic force, a bustling hub of trade for all the sea-faring peoples in the region. And, partially because of her love of her devotees and her fecundity, the population swelled.
The town had become a city.
One day, thunder rolled in the distance.
The jackal roused from her slumber. Her tall, pointed ears perked and turned towards the rumbling.
“Huh, didn’t look like rain today,” said a man who’d stopped by her temple to offer a prayer, “Best moor my boat, then,” he added as he departed.
That… Doesn’t sound right, thought the jackal.
Sartessorinova stood on four slender, black-furred legs and slipped outside. Over the seas and horizon to the south, a wall of dark clouds roiled, streaking across the sky towards the city.
The cobblestone streets were a bustle of mid-day activity with several passersby pausing to give greetings to their goddess, along with a gander at whatever it was that’d captured her attention so.
“Wouldja look at that, gonna be a biggun’ storm!” One man said, hoisting a burlap sack on his shoulder.
Thunder resounded once more, ever louder, ever closer. In scant minutes what had been drowned in the din of activity came to dominate.
“Never heard thunder like that before,” said one older woman, tilting her head with an ear towards the galloping clouds, just in time to get a good listen to another rumbling peel. “Sounds more like somethin’ roarin, don’t it?”
It wasn’t just the noise that was off, but the shape was wrong. People often saw things and animals in the white, fluffy clouds of a peaceful day, but those of a storm seldom gave to such flights of fancy. Yet, if one squinted and looked at it just right, it appeared as if the head of some big cat was leading the front.
Another minute passed. Squinting was no longer required.
Chills shivered Sartessorinova’s body despite the warmth of the air. Whatever it was, it was dangerous like nothing else she’d ever seen.
In a flash the jackal had become human, and she began to shout, “Get inside, now! Clear the streets!”
Crowds, being the sluggish things they are, simply looked at her for a long moment until she bellowed again. “Something is coming! Don’t just stand there! Take cover, now!”
Some heeded the goddess’ words and scattered, but most saw fit to linger and observe the darkening skies as the black clouds began eclipsing the sun.
So close now, it was easy to see that the cat head at the front was a lion’s. But, it wasn’t just an image any longer. It opened its fang-filled maw and roared, and so too did thunder echo across the sea. Ephemeral legs sprouted from the base of the storm, sprinting across the sky.
Fear provided the final piece of motivation. It started with one person breaking and running, nudging another with their shoulder. A mob formed and charged down the thoroughfares and alleys, each person struggling towards their home.
Sartessorinova shifted her lower half and sprang onto a rooftop from powerful jackal legs and dashed, leaping towards the temple of Pantof, the guardian deity of the city, who’d arrived not all that long ago.
He’d kept them safe from other raids, and he’d keep them safe this time.
I hope, she thought, biting her lip. This was unlike anything she’d seen in all her years.
Unconstrained by the congestion of the cobbles, she made her way to Pantof in a flash. Inside his temple, she found he was already suiting up in his armor.
Pantof lacked the ability to shift as Sartessorinova and some other gods did, which relegated him to one form. His body was that of an impressive mountain elk from the mainland, though where its neck and head ought to be was the torso of a man.
A pair of squire-priests were cinching and fastening the clasps of his plate. One of them was seated on the centaur’s back to finish the job—A position that’d see a grim ending for any other mortal.
“Good, you’ve already noticed then,” she said, sliding to a stop on the smooth stone flooring.
The half-stag, half-man grunted, “O’ course I did! What kinda god would I be if I didn’t notice a shitstorm brewin’ from the get-go?”
His voice and his form, clad from hoof to head in his polished, godsmetal plate was enough to bring a measure of calm to her racing heart. Yet, something nagged in the pit of her gut. Even now, she felt compelled to flee.
“Reckon it’s Koofoet kickin’ up a fuss again?”
“No, can’t be him. It’s some kind of—” She was cut off from a thunderous roar that pierced through stone. “—lion, and this is bigger than anything he’s been capable of.”
“That so? Let’s have a look, shall we?”
Outside, the sun had been completely shadowed. Mid-day had fallen into late twilight. The lion was upon them, paws dashing across the waves. In a minute, maybe less, it’d make landfall.
“Ain’t that something,” Pantof said in a low, somber voice.
The stag was a giant, even among gods. The tips of his antlers were out of reach of the jackal, even if she stood on her toes, and even in her four-legged form if she stood on her rear legs.
“I’ll handle this. You watch over the folk,” he said, taking off, hooves clattering against the bricks.
One of Pantof’s assistants appeared, holding out a black robe to her. He was doing his best to keep his eyes somewhere not on Sartessorinova and her lack of clothing. Most folks were accustomed to her casual attitude towards such matters, but the lad was yet young.
“Thanks,” she said, ruffling his hair.
He blushed some and nodded at her before retreating inside. Being that it was a robe for the tauric elk god, it was about as baggy as she expected. The sleeves extended all the way to her fingertips and the hem bunched up at her feet, which made for awkward running as she took off towards the town center to gather up any who remained on the streets.
Lightning shot from the clouds and struck the land, followed by a clap of deafening thunder. Whoever, whatever, it was had finally set foot upon her land.
She swallowed her urge to help Pantof and continued shepherding the townsfolk.
“Are we under attack?”
“If we are, then Pantof will protect the town as he always has,” said the goddess, a kindly smile reinforcing her external calm.
The man relaxed some, taking a seat inside a sundries shop alongside several others that hadn’t time to make it to their homes.
A roar pierced the air, arrowing through air and stone to strike at the hearts of the people. Some trembled, others went stiff, and all her hair and fur stood on end.
They’re safe as they’re going to be, she thought, turning her attention towards the shore where the lion would have touched down. He’s going to need help.
She offered one last word of comfort to the huddled mass before sprinting away on all fours, robe fluttering in the wind over her tail. Each long stride ate up the distance, bringing with it the sounds of battle. Heavy, dull thuds carried through the ground itself. The ringing of metal pricked her ears. Smoke rose in columns, swirling in the air, a beacon with which to home in upon.
Every footfall brought with it another rumble, another spray of dust and smoke.
When she was so close she could taste the lion on the salty sea breeze, the world went deathly still. Her heart leapt to her throat only to be seized and dragged back down by an icy grip.
She turned the last corner.
A dozen buildings flattened, and just as many or more could scarcely be called as such; many no longer possessed four walls. Or even three. A whole section of the city had been flattened, just like that. The fires that had been her beacon were spreading fast across the thatched roofs and wooden frames.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Pantof was backed against a wall, most of his armor tattered and covered in gaping rents. Blood poured from his wounds. One of his front legs was just, just gone, like it’d been ripped off his body, forcing him to lean heavily on his splintered shield for support. He made a few clumsy, futile thrusts at the hulking creature bearing down upon him, for all the good it did—his opponent danced side to side like swaying grass.
It crept towards Pantof on gore-drenched paws, a curious weapon hovering above its back. A spear crossed with an axe whirled about, spun by invisible hands. When the lioness lunged forward, so too did the spear-axe strike with her.
Pantof pivoted and heaved his mighty shield to turn aside the blow, but it could bear no more and shattered. He fell forward, unbalanced, throat outstretched.
The opportunity did not go unnoticed.
Teeth clamped around his neck even as he was mid-fall. Powerful jaws tore through muscle and bone, severing head from neck, teeth coming together in a mushy click.
No, no no no! Help, I need to help! Move, damn you! Sartessorinova commanded of her legs, but all they did was quiver. She couldn’t budge.
Yet for all the damage, life still flowed within the elk-god, body fumbling for its head. The lioness showed no mercy, no respite. With any hope of defense gone, she struck again and again, spear, axe, claw, and tooth stripping flesh and reducing the god to little more than bits of pulpy gristle in the span of heartbeats.
Green eyes fell upon the jackal, releasing her body from the spell placed upon it. Instinct wrested control from her thoughts. Sartessorinova leapt forward, baring fangs for the first time in centuries, but a goddess of battle she was not. The lion was unimpressed. In a display of frightening speed, the lioness darted to the side and forward, axe-spear slashing out at the jackal.
Sartessorinova managed to dodge the brunt of the attack, but the silvery edge still tore a ragged gash across her hip. A howling yelp slipped from her, but her cry was cut short as she had to dodge again—the second time was a success, for she narrowly avoided a cobblestone-shattering blow.
The lioness advanced with unrelenting fury, leaving her no option but to turn tail and run with all her speed. Even faster than she’d run there to begin with. Bricks and cobbles were a blur underneath, familiar streets whishing past her periphery.
Terror blinded her. Deafened her ears to the cries of the people as the buildings they hid within were reduced to rubble and corpses from errant strikes.
Wherever she went, ruin and the lion followed. Other fires started to join in the first. The conflagrations were spreading fast; soon, they would consume whatever the lion did not destroy.
Run! Run! Run!
She’d ran from one shoreline to the next. With open sea in front of her, she had to double back, but the lioness was hot on her heels. The jackal attempted to leap an apartment building to safety, but her wound twitched, sapping strength from her leg. A rear paw caught on the edge of the structure, slamming her onto, and through, the roof.
While Sartessorinova was not nearly as large as the lion or Pantof, she still weighed as much as half a dozen men in her jackal shape.
Her plummet through the roof and second floor left her in a pile of wood and adobe with bits and pieces falling around her. Dizzied and stunned, she slammed into one wall and another in her frenzied attempt to regain her footing.
A young girl cried out, thrusting a shaky finger in her direction.
…No, the girl was pointing under her.
Sartessorinova shook her head to clear the stars. In so doing, she became aware of a warm, slick feeling on her fur. She became aware of the young girl. She was Milonea, one of her granddaughters.
Horror flooded her heart. She forced herself to look down.
Blood dripped from her fur, pooled underneath the half-buried, half-crushed body of one of her sons. The lioness crashed in through a wall.
Her mind blanked and the world went awash in strobing shades of rage and sorrow. Sartessorinova loosed a howl of such keening and volume that the lioness faltered. Instead of the sure blow that would have left the jackal a cripple, her attack was slow, clumsy. Indiscriminate.
The daughter joined her father.
Grief took her, commanded her, chased away the twins of terror and panic. Banished reason. Gave birth to hatred.
She darted like a shadow, bowling the lioness over. Whatever invisible hand wielded the weapon, it lost its grip and the spear-axe spun into the air on lazy cartwheels and crashed into a pile of rubble.
But, whatever advantage Sartessorinova gained in her surprise rush was surmounted by the lion. She recovered, and scrambling to her feet, bolted from the confines of the crumbling building into the open streets. Jackal chased lion.
The pair tumbled and thrashed in a pile of snarls and yelps, tearing through the walls of one building and through two more. Sartessorinova managed a few good strikes. Blood from the lioness had been spilled.
Yet far more of hers than the lion’s drenched the cobbles.
She limped about, a hind leg shredded into uselessness.
The lion circled.
Try as she might, Sartessorinova could not avoid it. Her throat fell between the lion’s teeth.
I hate you I hate you I hate you! Curse you! Disappear from this world! Vanish without a trace! I banish you to oblivion!