Once there were great beasts, terrible and mighty to behold. Stomping, snarling, raging creatures who lived to fulfill their appetites. These towering monsters ruled all with violence and power. The lesser beings of the forests and fields were their prey, the sustenance on which they fueled their endless destruction. Nothing was safe from their greed, not even one other. Often they would feud with one another over territory or food, but often it was just because they wanted to test their mettle. Countless years went by under the thumb of these oppressors. As they continued to hunt and rampage over their lands, the creatures on which they fed grew fewer and fewer until eventually, these great bests found themselves with nothing else to feed upon. All those who would have become their prey had either died or found more and more elaborate hiding places. And so, the mighty rulers of the world died out.

In their absence, those living in hiding thought they would be safe at last, but they did not realize another threat waited in the skies. Great flying beasts had long kept to themselves, content to subsist on more modest prey while the earth-shaking terrors fought and killed. Most below either did not know of these hunters from the sky, or they had long forgotten them. The winged monsters were quick as lightning and quiet as a mouse. On top of this, they were patient, willing to go hungry for days to wait for the cowering creatures to emerge. But like the loud, lumbering, beasts of the ground, these new rulers from the sky fell prey to their own hubris. Avarice consumed them, and though they lived in relative harmony with one another, they were without mercy towards those living on the earth. By the time they realized the error of their ways, it was too late: There was nothing left to prey upon. Like their predecessors, they faded from the world.

Finally free from the despots of land and sky, the remaining inhabitants of the world emerged, eager to claim their lands for themselves. And this is where the world took two new paths.

On one side of the world, quick and adaptable creatures of fur and tooth quickly banded together. The lesser flying beings, those who did not prey upon thinking creatures as their monstrous kin had, likewise formed an alliance, and the two groups went to war for dominance of their land. Out of the conflict, the ground-dwelling forces emerged victorious, their foes exterminated or chased away for good. During the fighting, cold-blooded creatures waited patiently to see who would win. When the victor was clear, they finally stepped into the world, hoping they would be greeted with open arms by their fellow terrestrials. They were mistaken. This fledgling coalition had a taste of domination and conquest now–like all those who had come before them–and saw every order of being that was not enough like them as either against them or beneath them. The newcomers were enslaved, their backs bearing the burden of building what would become the Dēor Empire. Their new masters washed over the rest of their continent over the course of the ensuing centuries conquering and subduing everything in their path from sea to sea. Eventually, they found the means to cross the vast ocean and set their sights on new lands to claim. They took with them the belief that their ancestors had been the ones to finally subdue the ancient terrors, and thus the world was theirs by right.

Across that ocean, half a world away, another story entirely had unfolded. When the giant beasts fell and the hunters from the sky retreated, the souls that emerged from hiding were greeted by the winged ones not as enemies, but as friends. They chose to take a risk on the earthbound masses and became their teachers. During the times of the monstrous beasts, they had watched and learned. Able to avoid the beasts below entirely, and having much more skill and escaping their predatory kin, they grew and developed their own societies, just as their fellows across the ocean had. But where the birds of that land had thought to step into the void as the new rulers of the world, these made a different choice. Arrogance had brought down those who had come before; humility must lead the way forward. These guides from above showed those below how to live as one with the land, instead of seeking to devour and consume.

Over time, these sages saw their lessons were understood and taken to heart, so they retreated from the land below. Content to watch from afar, they retreated to the skies, the mountains, and the tallest forests. In their absence, the beings bound by land all grew together, although not as one united people as their teachers had hoped. However, the various groups that would become nations unto themselves never forgot the core of what their ancestors learned from the mysterious birds. The Kin, as they would come to be known, lived with and of the land, not simply on it. While they sometimes fought and warred amongst themselves for resources or territory, they ultimately still saw all life as connected. And over the ages, myths sprung up about those who had come before. These myths grew into ways of life for the Kin, who sought in their own ways to honor the ones who had taught them so much.

But one day, the Dēor Empire stepped foot on the lands of the Kin for the first time. And as they always had, they began to fight and conquer and subdue. The various nations of the Kin were forced into a war unlike any they had faced before. This war would be for their very survival.

This story serves as a sort of mythological origin for many of the stories in my collection about anthropomorphic talking animals. It’s also the basis for the novel I’m in the process of drafting right now. If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy my two-part short story: The Winter Hearth.