The sun brightened on a new day in Estrangia, a single foggy wind lazily breathing life onto the arid land as the moisturised breeze passed through the dew catchers that gave the people who lived in the hot and dry climate water. Figures that had waited all through the night for this moment hastily sprang into action as the water slowly dripped down into buckets that waited below. Not wasting a single drop, they pass the buckets down a line where others waited to encapsulate the liquid life into a bottle, handling each step of the process with care and efficiency that came from spending a lifetime working at the job.
Only three types of people were awake at this time, the water collectors, the bakers, and the desolate. One of the latter of the three, Harken, sat atop a roof, holding out his own dew catcher that gathered the moisture that was carried on the wind.
It was a simple design, and only needed to be made of cloth and fine strings. Many were even woven into clothes so that they could be extended at a moment’s notice, however the patience was what mattered the most for this task. The wind that gave people their life could approach from any direction, and at any time between the setting of the moon and the sun’s apex.
Their vigilance was kept the desolate alive, as this wind was one of the only sources of income that they could obtain. They often clambered up the buildings until they were higher than the walls of the city and collected as much water as they could, taking as little as was necessary for themselves before bargaining the rest for food from those that were unable to put up their own dew catchers due to the low height of their own homes.
As the wind slowed to a halt and the regular dry breeze picked up, Harken looked down at the water that had collected in the clay bucket, mentally dividing the water inside into portions of what he would need compared to what he could sell. Due to the rare occasions of rain, farmers would need the most, and they almost always had spare food, but he did feel that at some point in the future, he would have to take care of his body in order to prevent disease. Folding up the dew catcher back into his ragged cloak, he frowned.
This was a dilemma that the ones who were unable to obtain jobs or homes were faced with, starvation or disease. The only comfort that they were given was that their bodies would not wait long on the side of the roads. Clean up crews were common in the city, looking for those that had died in order to prevent their disease from spreading any further. Sometimes it was more desolate that worked on these crews in order for a pittance and the slim chance to improve their condition, however more often than not they were passed over in favour of actual citizens who were looking for work in order to prevent them from becoming like those who begged for their existence to even be acknowledged on the street.
Harken knew the reason why the desolate were so separated from the others, why they were so feared and reviled. Most of the desolate were descendants of Estrangia’s shameful past. Demi-humans. Half human, half… something else. The most accurate word now would be demon, however there was a time in the past where the term was gods.
Indeed, those that were desolate almost always had powers. While there were those that were genuinely human and hard on luck, the others had abilities that humans could only dream of.
Destroying, that is.
Terrified of what the demi-humans could do to them, humanity rejected them and tried to break them, to drive them out of their homes. While it was not official due to their new religion’s morality, there was a code that demi-humans were never to be trusted or treated as a human.
“Please, stop, I’m begging you,” a voice called out from the street below. Harken looked away from the waters of his bucket and walked to the edge of the roof to follow the noise. He glanced down to see several men of the militia beating on a fallen desolate. “I’m not a demi-human, I’m regular!”
The militia was effectively the town watch and the city guard rolled into one, not an officially recognised military force with no uniform save for the trinket of their symbol, and yet allowed to enforce their own sense of justice upon those within. They were organised and followed regulations, however those rules were fluid depending on their personal feelings towards the individual concerned.
“You were sharing water with them, weren’t you?” one of the militia accused, his dull robes fluttering in the air as he savagely kicked at the unfortunate, slamming his boot down on the man’s hand. Hearing the crunch of bones breaking, Harken knew that the man was almost definitely confined to a life on the streets. Without the money to pay for a doctor to treat him, there was no chance for the bones to heal unless he knew how to fix it himself. And with warped bones, there was even less chance of him obtaining a job. “I saw the markings!”
Each demi-human had markings which depicted their power and the elemental pillar which they were affiliated with whenever their powers manifested. There were four known pillars, Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Each had small branches that extended from them which allowed for different talents, however when traced back, it all began from those four pillars.
Eventually the militia grew bored of their violence and gave a last round of hits to the man before spitting on him and departing, looking for new targets to bully. The man wept quietly, looking down at the water which had spilled from his container. He would be getting no food or drink today. Slowly climbing down from the roof, Harken made sure to keep his own bucket balanced so that not even one drop would spill.
From what had just happened, he could presume that the militia were on their rounds, so if he continued behind them and followed close behind, he would be able to avoid their detection. Beginning to walk in the direction that they had just left, Harken looked back.
He knew that even without his help the man would be fine. From what the leader of that squad of militia had said, the man gave his water and kindness to others. Among the desolate, there was one resource that was treasured even greater than currency, or even water. It was the kindness to help each other, for if they did not have that, then they would have broken a long time ago. Even now others were gathering around the man, sharing what little water they had left in order to help the one that had helped them.
“Harken, you’d better be careful, the militia are mixing up their patterns today,” one of the stall owners called out to him as the larger man set up his cooking station for the day. He was a regular here, giving water to the man so that he could sell it back to his customers. Wandering over to the store owner, Harken placed his bucket on the wooden counter so that the other could measure out the water in cups.
The place was small, only allowing room for the man and one other, should he need to ask for help. A bright, tattered banner above spelled out letters that Harken couldn’t read, but he had visited the place enough for the man to tell him that it was just a simple pun on his name. Apparently the man was embarrassed himself at the making of it, but the recognition associated with the name was too valuable for him to change it now.
The vendor’s robes were a little more colourful than the militia’s men that had just passed, which meant that his wealth was high. In the society, brighter colours meant that you were able to enjoy life more, and trinkets meant that you had money to spare. The shop owner had both, though some of the trinkets were a necessity, tinkling and chiming as he moved to draw attention to his stall.
“I’ll be fine, Degon,” he reassured the owner. “I saw them come past recently, so this area should be clear for a little bit.” The vendor poured three cups of the water into his own reserves and placed a hot bowl of soup on the table in front of Harken. While the soup was not rich in flavour, Harken deeply appreciated the warmth that it gave him even amongst the heat of the Season of the Sun.
“Just so long as you’re sure, I wouldn’t want you to need to pay Elgen for another bucket, you already owe him a lot,” Degon sighed. “He can be quite ruthless, and it’s not even like you have any powers to give to him.” Occasionally store owners such as the aforementioned Elgen obtained services from the demi-humans in order to pay for items they could not usually afford. Such services were not always pleasant, and it was terrifying for most desolate to place their lives on a whim of another man.
However, calling Elgen a storeowner was a bit of a stretch. He was more like a thief and a fence that owned a piece of land in a feeble attempt to appear legitimate. It was an absolute failure of an attempt, and even drew more attention to him, but he was careful enough to never allow himself to be implicate in any unlawful events.
“Somehow I’m not completely disappointed by that,” Harken replied dryly, sneakily pulling one of Degon’s cups from below his counter and taking a draught of the water in his own bucket. “So long as I don’t even know my own talent, all I have to do to stay alive is keep my eyes to the ground.”
The markings that appeared on demi-humans’ bodies were not the only way to tell if they were separate from humanity. The eyes also told of which pillar that they belonged to. Fire was red, water blue, air white and earth brown. And while some humans did have brown eyes, the clear indicator was that theirs did not glow in the dark.
In respect to that, Harken’s were a rich violet, which pushed apart all those around him, both human and demi-human. Whenever any got close enough to see them clearly, they were startled by the uncertainty that he represented. To try and prevent any sort of rumours going around, Harken tried to maintain a distance from others save for those that he needed, Degon being one of them.
“Alright, you’ve taken up my counter space for long enough, scram, before I start taxing more of your water,” Degon told him gruffly, shooing the urchin away as the citizens of the city began to wake and move around, looking for places to eat. Despite his familiarity with the desolate, he still had a business to run.
Jumping off of the bench, Harken winked at Degon as he swiped the bucket from the table. He’d forgotten the valuable liquid there once before, and knew that the man showed no mercy, not even to someone that he seemed to show favour towards. Water was as precious as life, and Harken understood perfectly that if it was sitting right in front of you, no one would leave it for whoever had lost it.
Walking through the busy market place, the young urchin kept his eye out for any food or supplies that were going out cheap. The breakfast at Degon’s was more of a tradition than an opportune meal. This was the point of the day where he needed to be frugal.
Catching a glimpse of his reflection in a stall’s mobile, Harken tutted as he touched a hand to his lengthening fringe. It was getting to the point where he would need to have it tended to. The dark, black hair covered almost his whole forehead, leading down into his violently violet eyes. In all honesty, Harken didn’t enjoy the way he looked, with his gaunt and naturally dark expression.
Speaking objectively, he didn’t believe that he was unattractive, but when the other demi-humans genetics gave them a sort of ethereal beauty, he felt like dirt to them. It had always been apparent during the childhood games with the other desolate, the visible difference between both him and the other desolate, both the regular humans and the empowered urchins.
His build was also quite different from the others. He didn’t have the heavy, strong build like the Earthen pillars, but his body wasn’t slim and slender like the Air pillars. Instead it was almost like a perfect medium between all of the pillars. While most desolate wouldn’t think twice about the characteristics of a person, it was extremely important to the demi-humans.
Although they appeared to band together as a group, it was an undeniable fact that even amongst their own race, the demi-humans were split into their separate pillars as cliques. Unfortunately, Harken was too similar to the water pillar to fit into the fire and vice versa. Due to that, he generally found solace in being by himself, without needing to look to others to affirm his own place in the world.
After all, as desolates, none of them truly did. Not anymore.
A sudden loss of gravity broke Harken out of his thoughts as his eyes widened in surprise. Falling hard on his back, he glanced over to see his bucket of water hitting the ground and spilling the precious liquid onto the sidewalk. Biting back a sigh of disappointment, Harken glanced over to see who had sent him to the floor.
He was pretty glad that he had done so, appearing insolent to the town militia was not a good idea, especially not when they were all holding weapons. The burly men looked down at him, grins already on their faces as they looked down at the desolate that they had shoved. Their robes were slightly more colourful than the last bunch, but these ones all wore the same trinket around their wrists, attempting to give off the impression of a vague sense of unity despite the difference in their apparel. It was as close as they could get to a uniform before appearing as an official organisation rather than a collection of individuals.
“Hey, kid, there’s a water tax on this street,” the leader of them growled, bending down to examine the child he had attacked. Harken tried to keep his gaze at the floor, willing them to hurry and beat him so that they could be on their way and leave him to his own devices. “If you don’t pay up we’re going to have to punish you for failing to follow regulations.”
“Where’s your manners?” another of the squad snarled, moving to grab the collar of Harken’s ragged coat and drag him up. “Look at your senior when he’s talking to you, even you leeches should know at least that much!” When Harken looked up at the leader of the squad, though, he took a step back.
“Your eyes, what the hell are you?” he demanded. Only the four pillars and some of their branches were known, but even amongst them there were none that were represented by violet eyes. This tended to make people unsure of how to treat him. Most demi-humans had their personalities dictated by their pillar, and when one wasn’t known, the militia didn’t know how far they could push him. As if reading his mind one of the other militia piped up
“It should be fine as long as his markings don’t appear,” he suggested, looking down at Harken through gleeful eyes. It looked like he was the sort that enjoyed the beating, rather than the superiority of lording it over someone weaker. “As soon as they start to come up, we know he’s dangerous.” The others looked at each other, slightly unsure, but the leader took the step forward, not wanting to appear weak in front of his subordinates.
A heavy kick landed on Harken’s chest, sending him onto his back. Instinctively, the desolate curled up into a ball as he felt a rain of kicks and punches lay into him from every direction, the abuse flying from their mouths assaulting his unprotected ears. Gradually the beating accelerated to the point where Harken could feel his demi-human strengthened body beginning to scrape and bleed.
Feeling the pain throughout his body, Harken tried his best to feel something, anything, but to no avail. No matter how much he tried, there was no hate that welled up within him for the guards, and there was no sadness and grief for the bruises and welts that were being raised along his skin. There was only one emotion that came to mind.
This was the reason why Harken had no power, no symbols decorating his body, and why he was so useless as a demi-human. His emotions were stunted, unable to bring out but the mildest of feelings. And when Demi-humans powers required an input of emotions, he had none to give. This was the reason why he still didn’t know what his talent was.
Slowly, Harken came to the realisation that the blows were not raining down on him anymore, though his body still ached as if they were. Opening his eyes, he came face to face with the sergeant of the squad. Grabbing his hair, the sergeant dragged him back up.
“Good, you’re awake,” the sergeant growled. He forced Harken to his feet and controlled him by the head and his other hand on the desolate’s shoulders. “I really wouldn’t want you to miss this.” Harken winced as he felt his hair twist painfully, the sergeant directing his head to the side. Looking over, he saw the other militia that had mentioned his markings looking at him gleefully, his foot on top of the bucket that he used to hold the water.
The foot crashed down, shattering his bucket into pieces and sending pieces of clay and the metal reinforcing skittering across the dirt walkway. A piece landed at Harken’s feet, where he looked down at it with dull eyes.
“It’s just like you said, this guy’s completely powerless,” the sergeant of the squad laughed, kicking the back of Harken’s legs and sending him down to his knees. Falling there, Harken glanced back up at the man, his eyes widening slightly as he looked at him. The man had known about his emotionless state, or at least had guessed it and bet his squad mates’ lives on it.
Seeing Harken’s look, the other man couldn’t help but feel a shiver down his spine as he looked back at the other’s eyes, the faint glimmer of life sparking, but unable to grow. In all honesty, that terrified him.
“Yeah, but we’ve got other things to get done now,” the man mentioned, trying to avoid looking at Harken’s eyes. “You don’t want to be late for the Captain’s training do you?” the sergeant that held him with such strength flinched visibly before he threw Harken to the ground.
“I’d rather become desolate,” he tried to laugh the dreaded feeling away, but the both of them quietened down, each for their own reason. As they turned to leave, the younger man looked down at Harken and placed a boot on his head.
“Don’t you ever look at me with those eyes again,” he snarled. “If I see you after today, I swear that I’ll put a round straight through your head.” And there it was, the reason that the demi-humans never rebelled. What could a small collection of empowered individuals do against a whole army of soldiers armed with rifles.
As the squad of militia left, Harken rolled onto his back to stare straight up at the sky, groaning mildly as he did so. The reason why they were so high and mighty, why the humans treated the demi-humans like they were monsters and gave them that despicable name was up there.
The vast floating city of Haven soared in the sky, it’s ever burning engines keeping it half a kilometre above the slums and commercial district below. That was where the organisation that had persecuted the demi-humans began.
All of the empowered desolate were taught this lesson, should they ever rise out of the status that they were stuck in at the moment. They had once ruled over the humans, respected as kings, and in some respects gods. Then in a single day, that had changed.
The Hunters, a group that had chosen to refute the rule of the demi-humans, had invented a new weapon, one that could fire arrows in an instant with the destructive power of their own powers. Of course now the science seemed so simple, however back then the balance was destroyed as the proud Estrangians cast away their rulers, eager to take the higher position and rule over those that had claimed to be more powerful than they.
Of course the Hunters would be revered as the new ultimate rulers, advisors to the king of the people and his personal guard, and their pantheon of fallen heroes were worshipped as gods and martyrs for the wondrous cause.
As time went by, the Hunters grew smaller in power as political battles were fought and lost, but their standing among the people was undeniable, they were second only to the king himself. Because of them, Harken had had to live this inconvenient life.
Harken glanced to the side at the smashed bucket and sighed as he realised that he was going to have to visit Elgen like Dagen had predicted. Glancing back up at the island, Harken clenched his hand into a fist.
“Don’t worry, one day, I’ll bring it all to the ground.”