"Are you a predator or are you prey?"
It's a question I've heard a thousand times within the Apex Prime, a rite of passage for the predators in the making, the ones groomed to take lives. It forces us to chose how we want to live. Most of the time the answer is simple and fast, with no thought required. No one wishes to be scorn, pitied, and kicked while on the ground. But that's the kind of world I was returning to, a world where many of us must choose one or the other. A world where you're forced to choose life or death.
I had no such thought of returning to walk among the predators and the prey. But it's like that magician dug her way of thinking into my head, forcing me to follow her suggestion of a proper penance.
What we all wouldn't give to be stronger.
Few ever debate where they'll land between the strong and the weak. The rulers of this world made that abundantly clear for hundreds of years now; that the laws we live by are the laws of the strong, the wealthy, and the royal. They are absolute, and they are feared. The only choice given to me was to become the predator and not the prey. A choice that had me living a life of seclusion, which I thought was the right thing to do.
Living outside the walls of the Apex Prime doesn't seem to have changed what people see when they look at me; monster. Killer. Predator. Characteristics found useful for the job I now find myself in.
"We've come too far to turn back now!"
Nurwick, leader of this weary pack of bovine in front of me, paying me to help him escort merchants home after a long day of work.
It's a necessity in this area to have bodyguards, predators to help merchants fend off other predators looking to feast on them. Order is not necessarily practiced in these parts labeled safe zones. Rules apart from Apex control, areas such as these have to find ways to fend for themselves.
It's been a year since I'd seen the magician, who I could almost say knew me better than I knew myself. When I left the mountain and made my way down, I did not find a single welcoming glance in my direction. Although I did not expect to anyway. She made me want the reaction of a simple welcome. I should have known better.
Right away I met Nurwick as if he was waiting for me at the bottom of the mountain. I could tell that he wanted me as a tool for his benefit. Not like I could complain, he was the only one offering coin I found myself in need of.
The climb up and down the infamous Barrow Trail is known to be an arduous task for the merchants. The unyielding terrain is rich with treacherous bumps, sharp peaks, and deathly unknowns. It serves as an escape route from the predatory dangers that frighten most prey. The journey up weighs heavy on the desperate trying to get home. A fool's errand or a guaranteed way to die, this designated route home was not for the faint-hearted.
Many have broken limbs and lost loved ones to this misshapen terrain. And I'd say they were lucky. None of them know what a real climb is like. Because traveling between the four cores was asking for a fright-inducing death with one slip of the toe.
"Not much further now." Nurwick shouts. "We're almost at the top. Do not let your beast define your limitations. So I better not catch any of you stopping to look over your shoulder."
Nurwick knows that none of the merchants is spending their time looking over their shoulders at this moment. My presence is already putting them on edge, why the need for a reminder. Luckily the twilight hour gave the merchants a view of rich colors dark and bright across the sky. The spiraling colors appear whenever the sun starts to set in the Winter Core. Everyone's attention is drawn to the sky during this time, it gives them a brief reprieve, allowing them to dream of a new tomorrow whenever they gaze upon it.
It is believed by some that beyond the colors in the sky is a window into a better world. Few beasts like these merchants, living free outside the walls of the Apex Prime, learn these tales of hope as children. Forced to submit to the laws of this reality as they got older, many try to hold onto the idea of a better world by continuing the tale no matter how false. Hope to inspire their children with.
The higher we go, the more I take notice of the merchants and their desperation to finish the climb. Stains of blood on rocks and dirt from hands and knees do not go unnoticed.
"Here, grab my hand." I watch one merchant, a teenage boy whose practically skin and bones say to one of the older merchants. The boy extends his hand for the old man behind him. He must have noticed the man start to disappear from the corner of his eye. A rare sight to behold; a willingness to help the weak. But I guess from the young it's somewhat expected. He's not yet jaded by the world's cruelty, still filled with hope that tomorrow won't be so bad.
Instant death is the preferable option if one falls down this hill. I'm sure many have seen merchants fall behind or become too crippled to climb back up. Because once they do, they become an easy meal for the salivating predators at the bottom.
Fear is an intoxicating scent to any predator. I've tried to revel in the smell of my prey. But my heart never raced at the thought of my teeth sinking into their flesh. I've pretended to bury my head in the ground to avoid its tantalizing aroma when I was around other hounds who felt that way. Because I've watched predators nearly burst out of their boots to devour a helpless prey. And many looked at me strangely if I didn't show that I needed the same itch scratched.
Not long now, halfway through and we've nearly reached the top. This is the part when the merchants start to get antsy, wonder how far I will take them home before we go our separate ways.
I'd like to think those days are behind me, pretending to be the monster I needed the Apex to see. I can't pretend I don't deserve the shame because of my past. I made the reluctant choice to be here despite being the unwanted party. The beast serving as a second leg to the merchants if they wish to return home in one piece is my job for right now.
"Anyone wants Shin to give their big asses that final push up this hill!" Nurwick screams. The pace of the group suddenly gets faster. If not for Nurwick's call-outs, I'd be right on top of the merchants in front of me. "Do you want me to tell Shin that he can have that bite out of your tails if you don't hurry along?"
Now he's pushing it, even if he's only joking.
"Sorry bout that."
The apology is directed toward me, by the teenage merchant.
"It was a slow day, so many of us are not going to move as fast as other days."
Not sure why he's giving me the excuse for the group's slow pace. I already noticed how the packs on their back were larger than usual when it's normally smaller at the end of the day. "It's fine, move at your own pace."
"Nurwick can be a little irritating sometimes, but he means well and wants us to be strong."
"I think he's a little more than irritating." Pushy is more like it.
Following the magician's suggestion, I figured this was going to be a slow integration back into society. I didn't think I'd find an annoyance in the form of a burly and disheveled Shapeshifting Human Beast of the Bear waiting for me. This job would be our tenth together. He had me believe he was an undercover hound looking for deserters of the empire when we first met. Luckily the boots were his spoils of war. No undercover hound would advertise themselves so boldly if that were true.
Right away he knew of me, the old me who bent his knee for the Apex Prime. He was leading a group of merchants down Barrow Trail on his own when he saw me dressed in oversized clothes. His suspicion, and not his nose, is what ousted me in front of everyone. And despite my fictitious threat to harm him and his group, he did not yield. Instead, he found it humorous and was willing to keep my secret for a small trade.
Most of the Shapeshifting Human Beast with horns lost them in the last war. They were imposing creatures, majestic. In the eyes of the current caste system, now run alone by the Apex Prime's Human Beasts of the Lion, they were a threat. A problem remedied under the veil of night.
When the horn beasts were at last subdued or kill, the Lions ordered all enemy beasts to surrender their horns no matter how big or small. And failure to do so resulted in execution. Their desire to live forced the now hornless beasts to rely on dangerous terrain and predators they do not know for protection.
Predators like Nurwick receive a hefty reward in the protection business. It's rare for quality predators who do not serve the Apex Prime to profit from.
So I do wonder, does that make Nurwick the predator or the prey?