You don’t question the life you’re born into… it just, doesn’t come naturally. When your eyes open for the first time, and you drink in the dazzling light, you accept whatever truth is placed before you. At least, that’s how it went for me, when I entered this world as a tiny black and copper pup.
I wish I could say I’d known from the start that something was wrong. But that's not quite true. There was no nagging feeling inside me, no longing for peace or understanding, or freedom. There are no such things, when you’re born into the Morta Sango pack.
As a pup I was told about our enemy, the Firma Kero, and the many other Kero packs. I was also told of their Leader, the Great Dio. My father spoke to me often about our duty and honor, to battle them. It was a service we were bound to, for the Great Dio had declared war upon us and our leader, Malvirto, long ago.
Now in the Morta Sango camp I was born and raised in, I was taught our history. The old story went something like this; “When the world was young,” the elders said, “There were no wars, for no one could make their own decisions. The Great Dio was the only one capable of choice, and that was how He had designed it… so that He alone could govern all of creation. That changed when a creature from another realm. An ancient beast, wise and beautiful, came to live among us.
“Malvirto was that beast. He is one of few creatures that can dance between the realms and lives wherever it pleases him, and does whatever pleases him. It happened one day, that he took pity on us dogs, and some of the other creatures, he told us that we had the right to make our own choices… What’s more, he instructed us on how to do so.
“So the first dogs went to the Great Dio, who was much more easily found in those days. They told Him, “We know now how to make our own decisions and we are choosing to follow a new leader.”
The Great Dio replied, “Go then! You traitorous souls are forever exiled from the beauty of the land of Promeso! And you will never see Ĉielo. The fall of the world has begun… and this fall brings with it, war. But someday I will enter the war, to end it. You will not know the day that I am coming. I will rush in as fast and deadly as lightning, destroying all who do not renounce the ways you’ve chosen.
“It was I,” the Great Dio announced, “Who gave you free will, but it's you, who have betrayed the gift. So, since it’s through this betrayal that you’ve defiled yourselves, may CHOICE be the only means of cleansing your souls once more.
“You have brought war and treachery into the world, and darkened it. But all will be made right, one day. Until then, I say this to you… All creatures must serve a leader, but they may serve only one. So, if you’re not with Me, you’re against Me. In war, there is no such thing as neutral ground, so choose a side.”
“And so it was,” the elders said, “That the dogs who followed Malvirto became the Morta Sango. And the dogs who returned to the Great Dio became the Firma Kero. Our leader has cared for us ever since then. He provides us with aid, from the unseen creatures in the other realms. And he prepares us for the time ahead, when the war comes to its most glorious days of battle.”
Nothing about this seemed odd to me. I was only a young pup when the stories were told, after all. That was why I never asked, “Who is the Great Dio, that He can give others free-will and be ruler over the whole world?” Such questions didn’t arise in my mind. I believed what I was asked to believe and nothing more.
There did come a time however, when I started to see an ugliness to our lifestyle that I despised… and it refused to be ignored. A strange feeling of guilt and shame began to wash over me, it would come when I was training or learning our legends. The thought of war was slowly becoming an unpleasant one, though I wasn't sure why.
I soon began to fear that there was something horribly wrong with me, that I was different from my family and my pack. But what I feared the most was that someday the others might discover my differences… and kill me for them.
But of course that’s not what happened, or my story would end before it begins. No, there’s much more to be told. It all started when I was a young dog, still a pup really. It began with the arrival of a prisoner, a terrible dream, and a fox…
The mess that I call my life really began on a cool, early spring night when I was a young dog and not quite fully grown. I'd been sitting with several of my pack mates, near the edge of the territory, waiting eagerly for the warriors to return from their latest battle. The other young dogs and I talked of the glory of war, and the great honors that we might someday receive through our bravery on the battlefield. How foolish we were.
Like every other pup at the border that night, I wanted desperately to grow up and find my place in our pack. I wanted to be a hero and champion, a leader and a conqueror. In the Sango that's all there is to dream of. You can be a warrior, you can be a traitor, or you can be dead. But what I thought a warrior should look like, and what it did look like, were vastly different. You see, in the Morta Sango, the amount of glory and honor you hold is determined by how much blood you’ve spilled. It’s how many lives you’ve taken that matters to my birth pack, not how many you’ve saved… but I didn’t understand that then.
Now, I had greeted the returning warriors many times before and usually found them energized from a victory. But on that day, the dogs returned to the pack beaten and bloodied. In a blind rage many of them snapped at the faces of their adoring crowd.
“What did we do wrong?” One of the other pups whimpered. “We only wanted to welcome our heroes home.”
“There are no heroes among us today,” a warrior replied. His great silver head drooped low in shame, yet his hackles were raised in anger. “The only bit of luck that Malvirto gave us tonight, is that we captured one of the Kero’s warriors.”
At those words, all of us who had been waiting tried to peer through the ranks to see the captive. The warriors continually blocked our view, until at last I stood on my hind legs to catch a glimpse of their hostage. He was a massive beast, with a short brindle coat and wide jaws. Two of the Sango dogs stood on either side of him trying to keep a firm grip on his neck. Another warrior clenched his right ear, and I could see the blood running out of the wound he'd inflicted. With those warriors keeping their teeth on him, and the rest keeping him encircled, the Kero dog was held hostage. Yet he was a willing hostage, he didn't fight back, he didn't even snarl at his captors.
“Why are the dogs holding him like that, Corcoran? They're wounding him. Is he really so terrible that they have to keep their teeth in him?” I asked the silver warrior.
His blue eyes widened and his lips curled at my words. I’m sure his ears would’ve pinned against his head as well, but he'd lost them both in previous battles. “Don’t forget your place, young Eamon!” he growled, “You’re not a warrior yet, you have no right to judge our treatment of any creature… especially an enemy! He’s killed several of us tonight, and wounded plenty more. The beast doesn't deserve his life, let alone mercy!”
I quickly returned to all fours, lowering my head before my elder in respect. “I'm obviously out of line,” I thought, “I've made him angry and now I'll have to take the consequences.”
“My apologies sir,” I whined, “It won’t happen again.”
Despite my change in attitude Corcoran came at me, so I braced to take my correction. His fangs drove into the scruff of my neck and he threw me violently to the ground. “There's your place, Eamon,” he growled, “Don’t forget it again.”
When I opened my eyes they landed on the captive, whom I could just see past the warrior’s broad feet. His great yellow eyes were heavy with sorrow, but not for himself. “Hang in there pup, the evil doesn’t own you yet,” he whispered to me. But even his whispering was rewarded with tightened grips from the dogs that held him, and he cried out in pain.
The captive was taken to a prison pit (a hole so deep that even a grizzly would be doubtful to escape it), and I returned to my family. I wasn’t spoken to when I entered the den, for my father had been in the crowd of warriors; he knew what I'd done. He was a horribly intimidating site as I walked in. His black and tan coat may have been covered in wounds, but his strength could still be clearly seen.
I turned my face from his deep brown eyes, tucking my tail as I crawled into a far corner of our den. As I lay there my mind suddenly began to spin with questions. I wondered if someday I would be as impressive as my father. I shared his markings, and my build was only slightly narrower than his. But suppose the fear he instilled in me didn’t have to do with his looks or his strength, suppose it had to do with his heart or his spirit? Was that something I could ever hope to emulate? Was it something I wanted to emulate? The question was growing too deep; I tried to shake it away and think of something else.
But another question, a more important one, climbed into my thoughts. It had to do with the captive. When my own pack came against me, the Kero dog had been kind to me. And his kind words hadn’t done him any favors. What did he have to gain by telling me that “The evil didn’t own me yet”? Laying there in the darkness, long after my mother and father had fallen asleep, my mind kept spinning with questions. As they haunted me, I began to believe there was someone near by, someone who could answer those questions. But to go to the Kero warrior, to show him any more kindness or respect then I already had, that would only get me into more trouble. And if anyone thought I was a traitor, attempting to join the Kero, then I was as good as dead. So, I tried my hardest to let go of all my troubling thoughts and eventually I drifted off to sleep.
Now, most dogs dream and I’m certain I’d had dreams before that fateful night, but I can’t recall those. I can however remember, in great detail, the vision I had that night. A terrible nightmare that I will never forget; and I will forever be grateful for how desperately it scared me.
It seemed at first that I'd woken up, and I didn’t feel the least bit tired, so I stretched quickly and got to my feet. But when I tried to walk there was a strange tug on my back right leg. I looked back to see what was there but I couldn’t, for the the place I was in was blacker than a starless sky. Then I tried to sniff at what held me. My nose touched what was wrapped around my leg, it was smooth as river stones and cold as ice, its' scent was hard and acrid. I snarled in disgust and tried, in vain, to move away from the stench. The binds became tight as I pulled on them and I crashed to the ground, struggling against what held me.
A moment later there was a strong tug at my binds, as if another creature was pulling on the other end. A terrible moaning filled the air. My every hair stood on end as the moaning grew louder. It was a deep, wailing voice that seemed to rattle with weariness or age. And when the crying finally ceased I heard these words,
“Fade, I fade,
everyday I fade
shackled up and bound
with the very chains I've made!
Soul, my soul,
neither pure nor whole,
savage and defiant
always adding to the toll!
Heart, oh heart,
dark and rent apart,
from you pours my fire
as the end, in flames, does start!”
My heart raced as the intense darkness was then pierced by two sharp eyes, red and glowing. Then, slowly, the outline of the beast at the other end of my binds became visible. It was far taller than the largest elk I’d ever seen, sleek and graceful as any serpent, with two horns on its great head. I struggled again for freedom, but my attempts only made the creature moan and chant his rhyme, again and again, and again. Still I fought until I fell to the dirt, shaking and weary.
My body was failing, and so was my spirit, when another voice interrupted the chanting, “Show yourself, ancient one,” it demanded.
The beast obeyed at once. Opening his jaws the creature spewed out a trail of fire, which fell at his feet and burned incessantly. The flames were in between us, creating an unbearable heat. It singed my fur and stung my eyes, so my vision was blurred with tears. But even with this added threat, I was too worn to struggle any longer.
Then the voice that commanded the beast came again, “Do you see the monster, Sango dog?” it asked.
I did my best to blink away my tears, and looked as hard as I dared. “Yes,” I replied, “I see the monster... but what is it?”
“He is one of Malvirto’s first servants, known as KarnoCinaed. He is ancient, and of a race of creatures that is all but extinct. The few of his kind that are still alive are those that have learned how to hide in the darker realms. The practice has darkened their hearts, and they long to take revenge on the ones who chased them there. You can help this beast, young dog.”
“Help him?” I echoed, “I want nothing to do with him! Tell me how to break the binds, so I can be free again.”
“Chains,” the voice corrected, “Chains that you've made, they bind you to KarnoCinaed and entwine you to his great destiny. Don't fight them, Sango dog, they can bring you glory.”
“Then I don't want glory,” I growled, “I don't want any of what you have to offer! Nothing but death could come from that monster, you're telling me lies. Just tell me the way out, I want truth and I want life... you obviously don't have either to give. There must be a way to break free.”
“Your fate is set!” the voice thundered in anger, “Your leader has declared it, and you are his to command.”
The heat of the fire suddenly vanished, and the familiar scents of my own home became clear. My eyes blinked open, but were still clouded by tears. I rubbed my face with one of my copper-toned forepaws and glanced silently around the den. It was dark, and still very late. My mind was swimming in a sea of confusion as I tried to sort out dream from reality, when I noticed there was a small figure at the den entrance. I flinched in surprise when I saw the visitor, a small red fox, blocking the hazy moonlight. The creature was sitting and staring directly at me, it's yellow eyes wide and fierce.
He called out, “Warrior,” and he was so loud that I expected my father to wake. “Warrior, don’t hesitate now! Get up, go out, and find the truth if you want it… with it you'll find the way to life, and to freedom.”
My heart jumped at his words, filled with a hope that he might know the way to break my binds. Fear and weariness left me, but I couldn't bring myself to get up or even to say a word. Then the fox vanished, but my hope remained.
Later that same night, after the dream with the monster and the vision of the fox, I left the den and headed towards the prison pit. If KarnoCinaed was in league with my pack's leader, then no Morta Sango dog would help me break free from him. The Kero dog wouldn't have any loyalties to Malvirto, however... and he might know something about breaking free from “chains”. I knew it was a treacherous thing, to go to the enemy for help, but in that moment it didn't matter. Only freedom mattered.
Yet it was sad when I realized that, escaping the monster meant escaping Malvirto, and betraying my pack. To understand, all at once, that I wanted nothing my birth pack had ever offered me was unsettling. It left me feeling lost and disillusioned, and also desperate for help.
The pit on the edge of our camp was considered nearly inescapable. As a result, there were no night guards stationed directly beside it. The nearest guard was close enough to see anyone approaching or escaping, but not close enough to hear a hushed conversation from it. And since it was common for warriors to stand over the pit and mock prisoners, I had the perfect excuse for being there. If the guard became suspicious, I'd just say that I was trying to act like a warrior. “I'm just trying to be the warrior my father wants me to be,” I'd say... they'd probably praise me for it.
Once at the mouth of the pit, I called out as loudly as I dared, “Warrior, are you alright?”
“I’m as fine as can be expected, pup,” he replied from the depths, “Now, what are you doing here?”
“I - I just wanted to say that I’m sorry, for what my pack has done to you...”
“Don’t lie to me,” he interrupted, almost laughing, “That’s not all you want. Now honestly, I can see that something has you troubled. What is it, young one?”
“I do mean it, I am sorry,” I whined, “But I did have a few questions. Will you hear them? And help me if you can, sir… I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”
“Ivor, a warrior of the Kaptito Kero,” he replied in all humility. “I serve under our pack leader, Faolan, and of course under our Great Leader; the Great Dio. Now, who might you be?”
“My name is Eamon, I’m not a warrior yet, so I don’t serve under anyone,” I said, wishing I could give as noble a response as the prisoner had.
“Don’t fool yourself, Eamon. We all serve somebody, it’s a war after all and there’s no neutral ground. Remember that. We all have a choice to make about who we'll serve,” the warrior barked. “But go on, what did you want to ask me?”
“I’ve had a dream and a vision tonight, both very real, very unnerving. There was a monster, and I was bound in something called chains. I needed to break free from them... I don’t suppose you know what any of it might mean?”
“Not me,” the brindle dog returned, “I know a few warriors with that sort of gift though. If we were back in Mia Espero I’d send you to Aisling, or maybe Meara, they could help you better than I can. But you should really ask the Great Dio.”
This was not the response I'd wanted to hear. I wanted him to be able to help me, not another warrior or his Leader, who I didn't know how to find. But, reluctantly I moved on to another question. “If you don't know how I can get free, then at least tell me why you care about me. I’m your enemy, but you’ve been kind to me since I first saw you. What good does it do you to be friendly to a rotten little Sango pup?”
“Well, what good did it do you to be kind to an old Kero warrior?” he whispered back in a taunting tone. “Answer me that question, and then I’ll answer yours.”
But I froze at his question. We had been kind to each other since he was dragged into the camp. I didn't know what to say, I didn't know why I'd been kind. All I could think of, was that there had been something about him that I'd admired the second I saw him. That was something I didn't want to confess, yet I also didn't want to lie. So I left that question alone and tried a new one.
“Alright then,” I groaned, trying to think of something the dog might know that could lead me to freedom. “Can you just tell me why you follow the Great Dio? That might be helpful.”
“Thinking you’re on the wrong side?” Ivor prodded, but I gave no response. “It’s a simple enough question, I suppose, and I’ll give as simple an answer as I can… There once was a time when I didn’t know if I even believed that the Great Dio existed, but then I met Him. He's given me peace and joy, endurance and hope, and He loves me. Why would I follow anyone else?”
“He loves you!” I howled, so shocked by those words that I forgot to be quiet. “Are you joking or mad? You’re in a prison pit, injured I'm sure and no doubt hungry. If He truly cares, then why are you here?” But I was not prepared for his answer.
“Because I’m not the only one He loves,” Ivor replied. “Nothing happens without purpose. My time in this place will serve to strengthen my faith… and hopefully, it will stir the hearts of the lost souls around me. Perhaps I'll have the honor of extending the invitation, and see an enemy become an ally. Who knows, maybe I’m here for you, Eamon. Maybe the Great Dio wants you to know that He’s real, that He's calling for you, and that He loves you.”
My heart pounded in my chest, my head went numb and dizzy with thought. I shook myself, trying to rid my mind of new questions, like; “Why would He send you to me?” and “What do you mean by saying He loves me?” But they wouldn’t leave me alone. I was afraid to know more, but somehow his words struck me as being true, and truth was exactly what I'd been seeking. After a moment of wrestling inside myself, I turned my back on the warrior. Truth or not, I didn’t want to hear anymore and that was that.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” I said, trying to growl but failing, and I anxiously trotted away.
By the time I was half-way back to my own den, the sun was just threatening to begin its journey into the sky. There was the faintest glow of silvery-gray, warming the edge of the eastern horizon. It looked as if there were clouds coming our way. I didn’t mind the idea of rain that morning, everyone would stay settled in their dens most of the day if it rained. But then I thought of Ivor, and felt sorry for him. The pit was a horrid place to be during a storm, it would probably flood and drown the Kero warrior. But what could I do about it?
“Perhaps I’d be better off if the fool drowns,” I mumbled to myself, “Then I can't go back and he can’t get me into any trouble. I can just forget what he said, and go back to the way my life was meant to be... if I could only forget that dream too.”
“The only fool I can see is you,” a sharp voice snapped and I turned to see the fox that had stood at my den entrance earlier.
I jolted backward in surprise; the creature had appeared from nowhere. I sniffed at him curiously, and his yellow eyes narrowed with agitation. He'd come up so suddenly that I wondered if he was really there. I lifted a paw to try and touch his head, but he gave a wordless growl at the gesture and I halted.
“Don’t be stupid,” he said, “I'll take that paw off if you try anything,” and I hastily set my fore paw back down.
“Are you from another realm?” I questioned, shivering slightly.
“No,” the fox barked, “But there is another realm that you need to see.”
“How can I? I'm awake now, and...”
“You don’t have to be asleep to see the other realms,” the stranger interrupted. “It all happens at the will of our Great Dio… well, there are also enemy tricks. I can't say I really understand it all myself, honestly. I just know that He wanted me here, to help you I suppose.”
I stared blankly at the fox, sitting in the dew-coated green grass, tail wrapped around his paws. He was so small, yet so bold. But regardless of the creature’s confidence, he couldn’t be right about “seeing another realm”. Everything around me looked the same. There was nothing new or changed. That could be proven just by looking up. Or perhaps not.
As I lifted my head, thinking I'd prove the creature a ridiculous liar, I discovered that the world around me had indeed changed. There was still grass beneath my paws, but the sky was the most vibrant shade of orange and the clouds were black. It looked as if the sun had set the horizon ablaze and the fire was consuming the landscape. And that landscape was a wide valley that I’d never seen before. It was a breathtaking sight.
“Well, I like this place a lot more than my dream,” I said happily. “I’d rather see this fiery sunrise than a fire-breathing monster.”
“Don’t be so sure,” the fox returned with a stern glare. “You’re not viewing a sunrise,” he continued, “You’re witnessing the dawning of a terrible time… the descendants of KarnoCinaed are emerging from their hiding places.
“The vile beasts are in league with Malvirto and the unseen, wreaking havoc on the realms with fire and poison. Soon they'll creep out of the darkness, looking to destroy every creature that they can, Kero or otherwise. How will you defend yourself from the villains?”
I turned my eyes to the horizon again, and could see the flames more clearly. In the fire were the coal-black silhouettes of beasts that very much resembled KarnoCinaed. Their long, serpent-like bodies danced wildly inside the orange glow. Billows of smoke rose up, forming darker and thicker clouds. Those clouds seemed to be rushing toward us with an eager vengeance.
I stood watching the nearing figures of KarnoCinaed’s descendants, wondering what horrors they might bring to the Dark World… to my pack. Slowly the images before my eyes began to fade; it was so slow in fact that I didn’t realize it was happening until the change was nearly complete.
I snapped to attention and turned to the fox, but he was trotting away.
“Wait! What do I do?” I called out, not wanting him to go. “Is there anything that can be done to defeat these creatures?”
“The only one who can defeat them, is the One who created them,” the fox urged. “Find Him and you'll find salvation.”
Then the fox disappeared into a patch of brambles, and I was left standing alone and afraid. All traces of the vision, the fire and the beasts inside it, had vanished. All I could see was my own pack's territory. I looked around a moment and realized I was near my den, in the same moment my father came to the entrance. At the sight of me, a rather concerned look came on his black and gold face.
“Eamon,” he called in hushed voice, “Are you alright son?”
My eyes were wide, they’d never been so open before, and my heart was racing. “No,” I replied in a quivering voice, “I’m not alright, nothing’s alright!” I wheeled around and pelted back to the prison pit.
Before I reached the pit and the captive inside, I was barking his name, “Ivor! Ivor I've seen more!” I cried, and finally I was near enough to look inside. “Ivor I-I ha… had another vision,” I gasped, a bit out of breath, “There was KarnoCinaed, his descendants, and-and there was this fox...”
“A fox you say?” Ivor replied with a smile, “Well, I'll bet it's Aisling. He’s done some strange things before, but, all this about visions and monsters, and talking to enemies? Sounds a bit more like something Tor would do. Did he say anything important?”
“Well of course he did, I wouldn’t have come back here if he hadn’t,” I griped. “He spoke of KarnoCinaed, and said that the monster and more of his kind are coming to destroy everything. He said there’s only one who can save us…”
“And who might that be?” a voice behind me interrupted. I turned and saw none other than the warrior, Corcoran, his silver hackles raised in anger. “Who is it that can save us all?” he growled, “Go on and tell me, pup, and I’d better like your answer.”
I glanced down in the prison pit, at the massive brindle dog therein, and cringed. But Ivor’s eyes were pleading with me, as if he could see the struggle inside my mind. It was easy to see that “the One” the fox had spoken of was the Great Dio, but if I gave that answer it would be the end of my life. I had too many doubts on both sides, I couldn’t choose between them, so I stood in idiotic silence.
“This is a war,” Corcoran thundered, “We’ve no use for indecisive, cowardly whelps. Go rot with your new friend, you traitor!”
In the same instant the last word left his mouth, the warrior lunged. He rammed into my side and sent me tumbling down into the prison pit. There I landed with a thud, and the world went black and silent.
In what seemed to be only the next second, I slowly pulled myself up and shook off, only to slide and fall in the mud again. I glanced up and found stars overhead. Then turned my eyes down and saw a pair of brindle paws, twice the size of my own feet, in the mud beside me.
“Are you alright now, Eamon?” I heard Ivor ask, and looked up again to find his face. He was undoubtedly one of the biggest dogs I’d ever laid eyes on. “Eamon?” he repeated in a concerned whimper.
“I’ll be alright,” I returned, “Just need to find my feet again.”
The warrior’s brindle head came down and pressed against my right shoulder; I leaned into him as I struggled to stand again. For a moment my whole body trembled violently, as if my own weight was too much to bear. I had to sit, but managed to keep myself upright.
The pit actually seemed bigger once down inside it. The light of the moon poured in through the opening, but the wind was kept out by the deep walls, making it surprisingly warm. But warmth meant very little to either me or my new companion. There was no food, no water and ultimately no hope; we would eventually die there.
“If you call for them,” Ivor said calmly, “And apologize, and make promises and so on, they might help you get out of here.”
“I don’t want that kind of help,” I growled. “All I really wanted was to break free from that monster. But if my pack knew about the vision, they'd force me to help it. It is one of Malvirto's servants, after all. Well, if KarnoCinead is Malvirto's servant than I want a new leader! I'd rather die here than help them bring more destruction into the world.”
“I see,” Ivor replied, “Then, would it be safe to say… that we’re no longer enemies, Eamon?”
“I’m certainly not your enemy, Ivor. I don't know what all I believe now, but I’m done with the Sango and with Malvirto.”
“Good, then when we get out of here, I can take you back to Mia Espero. You’ll like it there,” Ivor said, seeming a bit too happy and optimistic for a dog who was bound to die.
“How exactly are we getting out of here? Is your Leader going to pull off some kind of miracle?” I asked, not hiding the sarcasm in my question.
But he only said not to worry, that he, “Had a friend who’d never let him down.” I assumed he was speaking of the Great Dio, so I had no idea what kind of rescue he might've been expecting.