The Silent Folk did not use scouts or guards to protect their territory – the concept would have been totally beyond their limited imaginations and it was clear just from looking at them that their only method of attack was the use of brute force. They were quite incapable of subterfuge or guile. So the First and those of the Singing Folk with the courage to fight for their future beside him approached the village of their enemies unmolested. There were no more than two dozen of them, men and women, led by the wily, greying Stone, who didn’t seem in the least bit slowed down by his injuries. They carried a motley assortment of axes and spears but the First himself was unarmed. Even in mortal form, and even with their physical prowess, the Silent Folk were no match for him. He felt a deep, burning anger in his breast as they walked. Although the memories of his previous life seemed to grow dimmer every day, he knew he’d felt this way before with the battle fury rising within him. But it was more than that. He was angry about Gift and her refusal to help too. She was the one who had brought him into the world of her people, and the one who he most wished to protect. She was the one in whom the spark of soul had first been kindled and who had helped him to drag the Singing Folk out of their mindless childhood. She, of all of them, should be willing to prosecute this war. It didn’t matter. When she saw what they achieved, the new world he’d forge for her and her kind, she’d understand how important it was.
They came to the ridge overlooking the village of the Silent Folk. Although their slow migration had only recently brought them to this region, the settlement had a strange air of permanence. Unlike their normally nomadic cousins, the Silent Folk were sedentary, their lives unchanging. When they decided to set up home, they delved roots like a tree and, like that tree, it would take a fire from heaven to destroy them. The First raised his fist. A peal of thunder sounded across the plain, but the Silent Folk moving slowly between their rude huts were unmoved by it. They weren’t interested in their environment beyond the ways in which it could provide for their immediate needs, and felt no wonder or fear. He saw again the bleakness of a world ruled over by these passive, accepting creatures, and he felt something like dread boil up inside him. He would not allow that vision to come to pass.
“Kill them all,” he said. The Singing Folk charged, and this time their voices were raised not in song, but in a bloodthirsty war cry, resounding with the anguished voices of all their ancestors who had been driven to their deaths by the Silent Folk, whose songs they now remembered.
It was a savage, brutal clash. The First, who had once led great winged hosts across bloody skies, whose awesome mind could conceive of battle tactics able to confound foes that were his equal and beyond, saw it for the unfocused bestiality that it was. These creatures, even the Singing Folk, were only a few hundred thousand years removed from their animal cousins of the forests, little more than apes, and they fought as such. There was no finesse, no strategy. They clawed and howled, smashing and flailing with their crude weapons. And, though the Silent Folk were larger and more powerful, an order of magnitude tougher than the slender Singing Folk, they were even less capable of concerted action. The Singing Folk overwhelmed then one by one, cutting them down as they let out mournful, baying cries like cattle. But without the First, they would never have been victorious. As the thunder rolled above them again, he recaptured a fragment of his lost glory. He sang too, but in a language no one of this world could ever begin to understand. He sang of the lost halls of his father, of the great, gleaming glory of the universe, the pillars of light that held the sky aloft, the gravitational perfection that no limited creature of this world could ever perceive. And he sang of his own greatness, of the Morning Star, who had dared to defy the architect of creation. Blood ran through the crude streets of the Silent Folk’s village.
The Singing Folk who had fought with him were changed by their experience, he saw. The joyous songs that had once sprang so easily to their lips now seemed hollow and false. Instead, their verse was sonorous and melancholy. Their eyes were unfocused, far away. Almost half of their number had been lost, but they had tasted their race’s first victory over the Silent Folk in uncounted millennia. It was a glorious day. The storm passed overhead as they walked back to their own settlement, and despite the low mood of his companions, the First felt elated. War had such an effect on him. He felt alive with the power to alter reality. The potential of the Singing Folk was immense. In time, he might build a new powerbase here and, somehow, challenge his father once again. These people, small and limited though they were now, might one day surpass even him. As they climbed a hill, the escarpment became visible over the horizon, but the First frowned when he saw a pall of smoke hanging over it.
When they returned, the people stared around at what remained of their homes in silent bewilderment. The First moved slowly, picking his way through the smoking wreckage. The Silent Folk had fire, of course. That discovery predated the branching of the two species, but he never imagined they had the wit to do something like this. If anything, that only hardened his resolve though. Feeling numb, he walked past charred corpses to what was left of the home he and Gift had shared. He knew what he would find, but he had to see it with his own eyes anyway. The hut was gone, only a few blackened scraps of wood and hide remained and, in the centre, where she had tried to crawl free from the conflagration, was a body. He fell to his knees and turned it over. It was unrecognisable, or it would have to been to one limited by mortal senses. Enough of what the First had once been remained in him though to transcend that. It was Gift, and she was lost to him forever. He threw his head back and howled into the rain that began to pour from the grey skies.
The last of the smouldering ruins were dampened by the unexpected precipitation. It rained here perhaps once a generation. Today, they were just lucky. The Singing Folk picked what they could from the ashes. There was no one left alive, of course: only the young, the old and infirm, the timid, had been left behind. They were not survivors. The First, moving as if in a daze, approached the huddle of people, looking small and bedraggled in the rain. Stone looked at him with his one remaining eye. Something burned there; something dangerous. One of the scavenging hounds of the desert sniffed around and he kicked the cur away absently. But they hungered for carrion, and the First knew that there would be much more of that wherever the Singing Folk went now. They would have to grow used to such beasts.
“They did this,” the First said. There was no sign of the attackers. Even now they were returning to their village, most likely, and they would come upon much the same scene. The irony was not lost on him, but he was beyond moral qualms now. This was about survival.
“Silent Folk,” Stone said softly.
The First nodded. “We must destroy them,” he said, “we must take our vengeance.” He did not sing, but his words had a rhythm and cadence, and the Singing Folk followed along as he stepped up onto a rock so he stood above them. The storm clouds rumbled overhead, forming into columns a dozen miles high. “They have pursued you across plain and mountain, driving you to the edge of extinction. Now they have attacked your home and left your families dead. Left…” he couldn’t say it. “They have destroyed everything you – we – held dear. Do we intend to let this stand? No…this is the end, and the beginning. We few have a great task ahead of us. We must annihilate the Silent Folk. We must secure this world for you and your descendants. You are the true inheritors of this world, not them. In you lives the fire of the fathers. I have given you that gift, opened your eyes to the past and the future. In time, there is nothing you might not achieve. Do not let your light be snuffed out by those brutish, uncouth beasts, those parodies of your kind. They are not people. You are the people.” He raised his fist before him. “I am the First of the Fallen, the mightiest of the celestial choir, my father’s most beloved son. And though I rebelled against his rule and was sent here against my will, I believe it is my destiny to lead you and win this earth to your rule. Let me guide you to your destiny. You know me as the Snake, the Morning Star, the Light Bringer. Know me now as the one who opened your eyes to the truth, who taught you wisdom and knowledge.” He met Stone’s eye. “The price has been high, but you are the Singing Folk no longer. Now you are the Wise Folk. The possessors of mind and soul. The only true people. Follow me now, to everlasting glory!”
They roared in response to his words, their eyes alight with hate and vengeance. Only Stone was silent, as silent as their enemy. He looked at the charred stump of a tree on the edge of the settlement, split in two as if by a lightning bolt, and he wondered if the First had seen it too and made the same connection he did. He decided he would ask him another day, but somehow he never found the right time.
The following years were bloody and terrible. The Wise Folk swept across the world, and they brought fire and death with them. One day, many centuries later, on the edge of a peninsula where the waves of the ocean broke against hard grey rocks, a distant descendant of Stone lifted a flint axe over his head and with it he smashed the skull of a cowering Silent one. He did not know it – would never know it – but it was the last meeting of their two peoples, although the Wise Folk did not think of their ancient cousins as people at all. As the blunt, heavy-bodied woman lay bleeding to death at his feet, that leader held up his axe and bellowed his victory at the uncaring sky. The First had long ago passed into myth by then, for he had become truly mortal in his exile, but the songs were still sung, and slowly they became tales and stories instead. They spoke of the origins of the Wise Folk and their war, of how the creature from the heavens had come amongst them bearing the light of understanding, stolen from the gods. How he had been in the guise of a snake, and saved a woman from harm, and in doing so ended the childhood of her people forever. The stories became confused, conflated, retold and reworked to suit the age in which they were told, but always the memory remained – even when Stone’s descendants unknowingly called themselves Wise Man in the distant, unimaginable future – of that first genocide that had marked them and was forever etched into their souls, and of the strange day when the falling angel had met the rising apes.