The Craven despise the Weak. They are burdens – to themselves and to society. The Agony often burns them up from the inside out as soon as it is introduced to their bodies. Those less fortunate do not have the strength to subdue it. Those slightly more so – those that survive the first day – are exiled, forced to find their own survival or cull themselves from afar.
The only thing the Craven hate more than the Weak are the Null. They are a constant reminder. The apex of Craven descent into genetic inferiority. A shameful black mark, denoting their distance from what once made them great. If the Weak have a distant connection to the Agony, the Null are cut off entirely. They are stranded.
The Agony is not introduced to Null. They would die from the process. There would be no chance to fight back.
It is better this way.
You were only given a short hunting knife, a thick leather cloak, and two gork-skin sacks. More of a formality, really. You are not expected to use the knife. The cloak barely covers your neck and back. The sacks are more deadweight than useful.
You are not expected to survive long.
All the ‘knives’ that you should use, the Agony has waiting for you. Weapons, within your own body. Sources of pain, suffering, ready to be tapped. If you do not use them, it will kill you with them. Or, you will use them to kill. This is the way of the Agony.
This is not the way of the Null.
But you are stubborn. For years, you begged to be gifted with the Agony. You pleaded with your master, bargained to earn the right. She laughed at you for all but one of those years. On the final day of the final year, she ceded to you that you had earnt it.
“The loyal servant wishes to die”, she had remarked dryly. “Who am I to deny them that?”
So, the ceremony took place. Against all odds, you did not immediately die. Already enough to set you apart, yes, but then you did even more. You continued not dying, all the way until they threw you off the cart.
And here you still stand. Not dying. It is time to earn your place, as a new line of empowered Null. To return home with your grip on the Agony inside you. To pass it on to a generation of Null Acolytes and find a place within Craven society as equals.
Grand ideas, you think. Or, I’ll perish in the cold. Either way.
Trudge through the snow. Thankfully, it does not fall at present, but lies in thick blankets on the floor to impede your progress instead. It takes everything you have just to move forward, but you do keep moving. You manage to break out a weak smile. The Agony quickly stabs you sharply, straight through the centre of your mind, and a rush of pain starts spilling up from your core, spreading through your torso. You grimace, hiss through your teeth. Drop to one knee, for a moment. Breathe, deeply. Okay. Message received. The Agony does not like to be forgotten. Even the cold will not keep it out.
But you must.
Eventually, the pain fades back down to a dull flame, bubbling constantly under the surface of your body.
You are better now than when you first fell from the cart. Convulsions and spasms are normal as one’s body tries to adapt to the newfound energy residing within, but yours were particularly vicious. The Acolytes that had ridden out with you – pureblood Craven, sent with you to make sure you were left as weak as possible – found it rather amusing. That is, until your errant limbs smacked into them; they were sure to return the blow. By the time the horse’s footsteps had faded, you had carved out a hole in the snow covering the road, battered and bruised by their inflictions and your own.
Maybe that was what helped me, you ponder. Frozen by the cold but keeping the Agony at bay. You can only guess; you were unconscious for hours. The first thing you remember after the ceremony began is waking to the howls of a wolf-pack.
The same pack that’s been hunting you for a day.
They seem to know you are Null. Maybe they have encountered some before; others of your kin, thrown out of Craven lands and left for dead. That is one explanation, at least, for why they have not already killed you. They know, or think they know, how weak and easy this hunt would be. So, they are toying with you. The wolves around the outskirts of Craven lands are well-fed, with exiles and leftovers from hunting parties. You should know, you have spent enough time dropping off the bodies of your master’s victims.
Well. Former master, I suppose.
Keep walking. Dragging your legs, really. Even without actual snowfall, there are still biting winds to keep you frozen and snow drifts to slow your progress. But keep walking. Because you can feel it. Its eyes, from the trees to your right. It is watching you.
One of the wolves has found you.
You are walking along a dip in the snow that, in warmer months, is probably a road. Dead forests flank you on both sides, bare even in the kinder seasons but dense with trunks and branches and heavy now with snow. Above, a dull-grey sky infinitely stretches above them, featureless and foreboding a darker storm. This is the edge of Craven territory, settled in the north east of Earkran and twisted by their flagrant experimentation with the Agony. In this Age of Ash and ruin, everyone is struggling to survive, but the Craven thrive on the suffering of all organic life. So, they cause it, everywhere they go, leaving swathes of land desiccated and climates thrown carelessly into disarray.
If this wolf has broken from the pack, it might not be as well-fed as you thought. The runt of the litter, perhaps, or a loner fed up with playing games. I know the feeling, buddy, trust me. But I can’t help you this time. Not today. Not when there is everything to prove and so much to lose.
Tentatively, reach out to the Agony inside. Feel its boundaries, the cut of its knives on the edges of its presence in you. It rages inside, desperate to escape, but so far you have kept it at bay with wandering monologues and the numbness of the cold.
Now, find the wolf. It is on its own, for sure. Hungry for its own food. Brave, or maybe arrogant. Stop walking and be still, focusing on the noises around you. Can you hear its breathing?
Turn to face it. You need no knives, no hunting rifles or traps. You have the Agony. As soon as you begin to release it, you feel a wave of pain crash into you, setting your skin alight. Burning energy ripples through you. It fucking hurts. But that’s alright. That’s the idea.
Raise your palms, shaking, and try not to jump or falter. The wolf leaps out of the shadow of the forest and onto the road. Hold your hands steady as it approaches, baring its teeth. Try not to vomit as the pain flows, racing through your muscles, pumping in your veins.
Look that wolf in the eyes.
Fight hard not to black out.