The Forgotten War

The year 79AD is fraught with mythological significance. There was the destruction of Pompeii, terrible Norse rumours of Ragnarok from the frozen North to stormy Lindisfarne. Several prophecies hinted at dark events on the way.


According to history, the worst thing that happened that day was that two Roman towns were buried in ash, killing hundreds in mere moments. Terrible as this event was, it was not the worst thing that happened that year, it is simply the worst thing that people remember…


Asmodeus did a very, very good job in erasing the most significant historical event since, well since anything, from anything but Viking and Celtic legend, which nobody believes anyway.
On August 25th (modern calendar) AD 79, the world ended but it also did not. It was a very close thing.


This battle, called variously ‘Lucifer’s Folly’, ‘The Harvest of Heroes’, or ‘The Neverwar’ , depending on who you listen to, two vast armies faced one another in the shadows of the Megiddo valley in Isreal/Palestine. In the foremost ranks of one army stood the greatest heroes you have every heard of; Nephilim every one.

Opposing them, the seemingly unending ‘armies of Hell’; imagine orcs, kobolds, trolls, giants, ever type of monster you could imagine and some you wish you hadn’t…


“He was most amazed by the fact that it was a lot quieter than he’d thought it would be. He didn’t really know what he’d been expecting but not this. He heard the gentle ruffle of banners being pulled at by the wind, the jingle of harness as the soldiers around him moved from foot to foot or stretched to keep muscles from cramping on them.


Otherwise, silence, pretty much, which only made the waiting worse.
Across the other end of the valley, they were gathered. It looked like a huge wall of shadow from here, so large was the mass of enemies. Some early calculations based on what their local scouts told them, said that they were outnumbered somewhere between 450-1 and ‘it doesn’t really make much of a difference we’re all going to die anyway’.


Of course, thought Fionn, as he tightened then loosened the grip on his spear, they had almost every hero that had ever lived on their side so those were pretty good odds to some of them…but only if you actually believed the stories…


He smiled as he rotated his shoulders and looked around at the men and women beside him.


There was a knot of big Norsemen over there, all axes and hammers with their winged helmets and shiny armour. Big fella with the hammer had sparks jumping all over the place which was something Fionn considered unwise in the presence of so much nervous metal. They were clearly bonnie fighters though, he’d heard that the big one with hair and beard of the purest white had cut his way out of the dragon that’d tried to eat him. He caught Fionn’s eyes and cocked an snow-white eyebrown in greeting before turning his head back to the bigger fellow with the fancy hammer and sparks.


Fionn’s group of hairy, tattooed warriors stood in a loose knot of aggression, clustered around the Big Man himself, him as had brought them here from the Eagle Isles far away in the Mist.


The Wolf was big. He held a claymore casually over one shoulder, its metal full of strange blue reflections which danced along an edge that was, from certain angles, not entirely there. A large bearded axe, heavy with runes and knotwork designs, was being used to draw patterns in the dead desert dust.


Not a good place for fighting, Fionn spat in the dust and watched the moisture vanish almost right away. Already enough death here but he could feel the thirst for even more blood rising from the barren rocks like smoke.


The Wolf looked down at Fionn, or at least his heavily carved silver wolf mask did. Fionn never had figured out how Cú saw through those blue jewels his war mask had for eyes but on those rare occasions the Big Man felt inclined to speak, he’d said “clearer than you can imagine. Like eagles on the wing and wolves beneath a full moon see, I’d wager”.


The azure gaze lingered on Fionn long enough to cause the wiry hunter to finger his fine beech bow with a barely repressed shudder.


“Big Man likes you, so he does” Bran had said through bright red moustache. “The wee giant is his best mate, sure he is.”


At 5’10”, Fionn was small for a giant, slight of build and sparse of beard. His Da had been the giant that’d built the Causeway to get across to where his mother – daughter of some distant cousin of Bran Boru, a nasty lesser Lord of Ulaid- was being held prisoner as was the fashion of the time and Fionn the half-giant was the result.


The Big Man was near a foot taller than him and a great deal older, folk said. He came from the drowned lands under the Morimaru off the coast of Albion. They said he’d fought these fellas, the Fír Bolg and Bálor’s kin before. They said him and that blue-eyed devil with the two most beautiful swords Fionn had ever seen beside him went way back. Back even before the ice left and the sea came in.


“About bloody time,” the Big Man said to no-one in particular. He gestured towards the storm gathering over the Fír Bolg with his impossible sword held loosely in one hand. He bumped the blue-eyed devil, who appeared to be asleep standing up, on the leg with the flat of his axe. “That uncle of yours has decided to show up.”


The odd significance of those words made the hairs of Fionn’s heavily tattooed arms stand up and he gripped his bow even tighter.


“I know you’re in charge here, Sable,” Big Man continued all nonchalant as one of those priests getting off a boat in his dress to chase of the snakes Eíreann never had anyway. “But I’d suggest it’s time for that signal.


The one called Sable appeared to awake and look towards his friend. Fionn felt his gut tighten as those devil-blue eyes brushed his and fought the sudden wave of terror down with great effort. Sable nodded and waved one of his beautiful silver swords up in the air.


Far off, the deep growling scream of a war horn sounded, setting Fionn’s teeth on edge and his heart pumping harder. Another answered it, this one bright and singing like the way Fionn imagined a swan’s one and only song would sound. Across the valley, answering horns and trumpets winded, their discordant cacophony bouncing off the valley walls.


Big Man nodded and indicated the horizon with his sapphire wolf’s eyes.

“Here they come,” his normally booming voice barely above a whisper. “If you’ve any ginger on you, Atlantan, I think the men’ll be needing it soon.”


Sable nodded and rolled his neck, producing some fine crackles of bone Fionn most approved of. He said nothing and kept those eyes fixed on the black storm-front, crackling with lightning that could not be natural.
It took a moment for Fionn to see how right that assessment was…


The storm was no storm, it was…
In the boiling inkiness of the tortured air he saw them, colossal figures that were nearly not there. They looked like pictures of light projected into the storm…like…like…like ideas trying to take a shape.


They were like the star-creatures dropping from above, trying to become what men said they should be but struggling. He thought he could see four creatures slowly striding through the lightning but they kept blurring and changing like pigment in water, swirling and coming apart before reforming again.
Then, his temples pounding and his eyes threatening to turn themselves inside out, his mind let him see them. His béan sidhe heritage let things hidden from mere men reveal themselves to him.


There were four figures but, seeing them clearly now was not the blessing he’d thought it would be and he prayed for ignorance now.
As big as the sky and each filled with lightning, they strode over the innumerable Fír Bolg.


In robes the colour of the grave drifted the first, his raised hood empty and arm of bones holding a massive scythe whose blade was larger than the sky itself, it seemed. A smoke swirled around it and, as he felt horror knew at his gut, Fionn swore he saw faces in that smoke or, better said, the smoke was faces, millions of them. The scent of long abandoned tomb mounds drifted towards them.


As the second figure moved, the scent became stronger, richer and riper. This figure also bore a scythe in one emaciated hand but it looked normal compared to that which the first carried. The rest of the figure did not look normal. Every inch of its bare flesh not covered by crumbling rags was the deep black-brown of the long and dried up dead yet somehow it retained an unholy gloss to it . Atop stooped and bowed shoulders was the skull of a great ox or steer in place of a head, baleful and sickly fire burning from the eye sockets.


Compared to the bandy, famine-wracked frame of his neighbour, the next creature was a giant. Corroded heavy iron armour covered all but one corpse’s hand and splayed lizard-like feet. In one iron-clad hand, it gripped a vast bow of shining metal and in the pallid, diseased bare one it held an arrow from which unhealthy light did not shine so much as ooze, like pus from a wound. Its face was an outlandish mask of dull material covered in tubes and pipes with an opaque glass plate over its eyes and two great drums either side of where a mouth should be. From these drums a fog of a colour one could only describe as unhealthy huffed in and out periodically as if the creature were breathing it.


But Fionn had eyes only for the fourth figure for it was glorious. Behind it’s heavily armoured body spread vast wings of living flame. Where the other figures appeared to now be waiting and quiescent, this one was in constant motion. In one hand it held a whip which appeared made of broken blades hammered together and ending in a glowing skull of white-hot brass; it coiled and snapped with the sound of a heavy infantry charge with only the slightest movement of the creative’s right shoulder. In its left hand, it held a double-headed axe of molten iron easily as long as Fionn’s father had been tall. Upon its jagged armoured shoulders, brutal fire the colour of burning blood blazed from the dry sockets of the skull of a great ram. The eye wateringly bright fire that filled sockets and skull grew brighter and softer, brighter and softer…as if it were the breath of the creature. As it ‘breathed’, the stench of shit, and blood, hot iron, and fear sweat washed over Fionn and he was certain that the blaze of its gaze fixed upon him and only him within the multitude; weighing him up.


Fionn tore his gaze away, counted, and thought on his impressions of them; they scrabbled at and dug up something deeply primal within him and, when realisation finally broke the surface of his thoughts, the words fell from his quivering lips before he was even aware of the thought that heralded them.


“Oh shit, are those what I think they are?” he wavered. “Now we really are f-“


Sable, who it was now clear had been watching Fionn the whole time, cut in adroitly, his voice level and deep, filled with a confidence Fionn knew his lacked. “That’s them, half-giant,” his voice had a laugh to it for reasons Fionn could not fathom. “This is, indeed, IT”

Fionn said nothing but this time, when he met those blue eyes, it was not fear that he felt, it was hope. He licked dry lips and nodded.

“That one,” Sable indicated the burning whip cracker with one silver sword. “That one is mine, Conan.”


Such was Sable’s quiet assurance that Fionn felt certain that a million Fír Bolg would barely slow a man like that down.


“Everyone’s got to die sometime!” Big Man roared in reply, butting Sable with one shoulder, over the nervous clatter of a thousand suits of armour. “I want to see what colour that big sheepie bastard bleeds for myself!”


It was not even that funny, Fionn reflected as his voice joined the rising roar from the rest of the army, but he laughed along with the rest of them.


“This blue-eyed bugger has killed giants for fun so I’m for getting to that shiny bastard while there’s still big fekkers left to fight!” He roared even louder and stabbed claymore at sky. “Who is with me?”


In a wall of noise; terror transformed into desperate bravado, screams of rage, swords beating shields, and the sounding of horns from a hundred nations which filled the plains of Meggido from end to end, fifty thousand men and women told him that they were.


As they charged forward into certain ruin, the battle at the end of the world began…

The End of All Things

The signs are all there, there is more of this and less of that than there used to be, these people are doing the things this culture or prophet predicted and it is only a matter of time before the rest of the thing he/they predicted will also happen and *poof*…


…..


You can clear all appointments for next week because, well, there won’t be a next week…


Of course, people do rather disagree about the method the Earth will decide upon for her Big Exit or, at least, ours but we all know it’s coming, right? Stands to reason doesn’t it? Bound to happen sooner or later…


I hardly think this is a new phenomenon…


Simpler Times


Back when the world was, at least from a matter of the perspective of most people, a smaller place, the End of All Things could happen fairly often. People did not know anything about other countries; gosh some people didn’t know about cities even! If the river burst its banks and flooded a fertile little valley, killing everyone except a few (who’d die later of disease), that’s the end of the world. It’s certainly the end of it for them.


The Romans were convinced that civilisation would just stop if their Empire ceased to exist to, in a manner of speaking, the world would end because, so they said, all would descend into barbarity and chaos, ultimately ending all people worth thinking about.


Smelly tribespeople who couldn’t speak Latin did not count, apparently.

This raises the question which we think is a vital one to consider and, perhaps, answer;


WHAT WOULD WE HAVE TO LOSE IN ORDER FOR IT TO BE CONSIDERED “THE END”

  1. All the humans die or, at least, most of them.
  2. Civilisation is destroyed and our comforts with it
  3. The internet goes down for more than a day
  4. Our environment is wiped out and there is nothing of natural beauty left

These are, I think, the Big Four. A fitting number, I feel, because we also have the Four Stereotyped Animal-Riders of The End Bit. The role they will play in final events does vary. Will they just ride around and watch? Will they get involved directly? Are they simply good metaphor? Nobody really knows because they only show up the one time and do not, it would appear, carry out drills or rehearsals.

The Big Show is, it would appear, very hush-hush and need-to-know.
Now, I know what you’re thinking; there are countless ways the world could end, is not the above list too simplified?


No. It is not.


It doesn’t really matter how all the humans die out; be it aliens, pandemic, natural disaster, getting dinosaured into fossils; they die out. Gone.


Whether civilisation is ended by a zombie plague, another less virulent pandemic, talking apes with great charisma, different aliens, a robot uprising or any combination of the above, it is also gone.


If rebooting the router or unplugging it then plugging it back in again 30-60 seconds later does not work then it truly is a lost cause.


However the environment is ravaged and destroyed, it will simply be a matter of deciding who is to blame. If they are dead then it makes the process much easier, utlimately.


The fact that there are so many ways, scenarios, and methods it is considered are ‘canon’ or ‘popular’ for the Big Finish should, perhaps, set your mind wandering towards where I think it should.


A Popular Passtime


Take a look inside of a bookstore, on Amazon, on Netflix or similar, at the movies or at videogames. We do love a good apocalypse don’t we? The most popular forms of entertainment all focus around either;

  1. An imminently arriving disaster that only the heores can avert.
  2. A disaster already happened and survivers are trying to rebuild
  3. Clues to a previous disaster ae uncovered and the heroes must tell the world to prevent a similar thing happening again.
  4. The hero knows what’s going to happen but no-one believes them then it either; gets averted dead on time or happens anyway.
  5. Fantasy or Steampunk or Mad Max style world arises from the ruins of the old world.
  6. Vampires or other mythical/magical creatures regain dominance with less humans around.
  7. Totalitarian regime arises “to protect” survivors of said disaster or previously benevolent organisation/government goes that way, drunkon the power of how much humanity needs them.

In essence, we do love a good disaster or look at what might happen to humanity after one. It could be said that humans are rather a dramatic species.


You see, they are rather obsessed with the extinction of their species or, at least, the extermination of a large proportion of it. We wouldn’t really call that a great survival instinct…


Imminent Doom


This past 50 years alone we have had;

  1. Global nuclear war any time now, you wait and see
  2. Terrorist apocalypse and “Holy” war
  3. The Millennium Bug
  4. Predicted year 2000 one-time meteor, magnetic field polarity switch/other
  5. Predicted year 2012 Mayan apocalypse
  6. Various delayed Raptures
  7. Various global pandemics

Yet here we remain. Of course it has also been a period of near constant wars in the Middle East that people do not really talk about any more; the lives and worlds of a great many have ended as a result of those.


The point is that it appears that humanity actually wants some dramatic event with stirring orchestral music to unexpectedly occur to the world in spite of the fact that it would kill millions including some people they know or care about. Seems odd to me.


Either that or that is what “they” want us to be thinking about. As we have mentioned in previous articles, “they” control our governments and our media; they control what we see and even what we think. Of course, we can no more agree on who “they” are than we can on how the world will end.


There is a serious point being raised though; we watch for patterns and concordance and wonder whether any of you have noticed anything recently? We’ll leave it there for now because we do not wish to repeat what we covered in other articles.
However our sense of always living under the weight of imminent but nebulous doom is created, we cannot deny that it is there and could, were someone of a mind, be made use of…


Conclusion


The world is going to end just like everyone is going to die. Sooner or later it is the one fact of which we can be certain. What each of us considers “the world” will end and none of truly know what comes next.

Therein lies, perhaps, the root of our fascination; the potential for our very personal world to end quite abruptly one day.


So, we face that fear by entertaining ourselves with disasters averted or a better life for all on the other side.

The Thirteenth Watcher

A Short Story

A hilltop in the centre of the town which sat within a deep valley of impassible blades of rock. Upon its table-flat peak, were equally arranged 12 chairs and upon each chair sat a god. With exact regularity, twenty-four times a day, the gods would rise, turn to their right and bow to the next god, then each god would step to the right, bow to the 13th chair at the centre of the circle and sit in the next chair along. Stand. Turn. Bow. Step. Bow. Sit. Regular, even, predictable, unchanging. Stand-turn-bow-step -bow-sit, stand -turn-step-bow-sit, stand-turn-bow-step- bow-sit.  So passed the day, 12 times round, stand-turn-bow–step-bow-sit. So passed the night, 12 times; stand-turn- bow-step -bow-sit.

Twenty-four times a day without fail, without variance, without delay, stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit. Twenty-four flights of wide stone steps wound up the hill from the town below, twenty-four turns of sixty steps each. The hill was tall but you could always see at least one god stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit in their regularity for the gods were large and wore robes of deep red. Wherever one stood in the town, one could see at least one god stand-turn- bow-step-bow-sit, when the time came so you would know to lay down whatever you were doing and leave it, for the time for that task, had passed and it was time for the next task. 

Before the gods had come, this town was a different place. It was sung that the world had fallen into darkness and disaster that almost all the people on it had fallen to savagery and war. A great chaos and Great War had left few people remaining. It was told that the survivors of the chaos had found their way here and built this town, thinking themselves safe, but monsters had come, demons and twisted men to take what little they had remaining. They had fought, defended, and hidden here in the dark. 

The people of the town knew nothing of the outside world though; they lived in their valley and lived by their hill and their gods. No-one dared venture out into the wasteland beyond the walls of this green and fertile valley, for there was death, the elders said. There was no order, no gods, to be found. 

It was also told – not written, writing took too long and was a wasteful activity when one man could speak to another man, one woman another and communicate their message without first one having to compose their missive and take time, then another receive it, read it and compose their reply, what a wasteful foolishness. One could talk and tell tales of the other times while eating or relaxing at the end of a day’s work before bed, no need for one to write when one had a mouth and there was no-one outside of this valley anyway – that people used to waste time and had no disciple. They would do nothing all day and pay no attention to the passage of time, they had no gods or not real ones they could see at least, or they would waste time, spending all day on one activity and not pausing each time the gods stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit to leave that task for ended then turn and start the new as seems sensible.  


They were fat and lazy and would then, after too long in their sloth, rush around like flies trying to get everything done in the turns which remained. Of course, they never got anything done right! Therefore, in this disorder and constant stress and rushing, they were always angry and so had wasteful wars, which ended their wasteful world. In addition, they, the darker stories told, are the ones who wait without in the darkness. 

It was said the gods came to the hill to protect the town and the refugees of the fallen wasteful world, although it was never said where they came from, no-one seemed to care as long as they were there, protecting, in their stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit rhythm. The gods never spoke and no-one seemed to know where the Rules came from, though everyone followed them because they worked. The Rules were not written anywhere, the gods never proclaimed them – for the gods never spoke, just repeated their stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit rhythm – and none recalled ever being taught them, everyone just knew. The best defence is order. As the gods would stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit you start your task and when they next stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit you stop and begin your next. If you did not complete your task in that turn of the gods, you waited until the same turn the next day to carry on with it. A full cycle was the full twenty-four turns so if someone were to order a table and was told it would take three cycles, they knew it would take three cycles to arrive guaranteed, it was hardly complex it simply required efficiency and discipline.  

The system worked. The Rules made sure no time was wasted and made the people of the town very efficient at their daily tasks because their lives, governed by their silent gods were all about efficiency and good use of time. It was considered right and it was considered proper to not waste more turns on a task if it could be avoided. If was wasteful and everyone knew where wasteful led to. 

The town was quiet and industrious, everyone knew their tasks, got on with their lives and followed the Rules and learned to specialise so well in their field so they could effectively do things as alloted without stress. No-one rushed, that was wasteful and led to disorder.  Everyone make sure they did things right because, if you did it badly, that was wasteful because you have to do it all over again in another turn. So, not only do you waste one turn but you waste two! This is what led to the world to fall and order is the only protection from darkness. Therefore, everyone did their work well; bakers baked and made sweet treats, builders built, housewives housewived, everything in its place. It was all ordered, it was all right. 


Stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit went the rhythm stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit, start your task, stand-turn- bow-step-bow-sit, end your task. 

At night, the sickly sun would set but the townsfolk would not stop, they would continue and, with an instinct seemingly built in, turn their heads to watch the gods stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit before going indoors or home to eat. They would then follow their tasks until the last stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit of the day signalled sleep. Of course, after the sun went down one had to still see the gods stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit and for this thirteen fires were lit on the hilltop. Children were chosen for this very important task for the night has the most terrors, needs the greatest protection; all must see the gods when darkness descends.

Those considered dangerous said there were voices out there, human voices. The same ones, those sensibly considered insane by all decent people, said the screams were human too; outside their safe valley, there was nothing but emptiness and death, they said to anyone who would listen. Which was no-one, of course. 

 As light failed, a child would arrive at the top step to wait. As the gods stand- turn-bow-step-bow-sit he will enter the circle of their chairs and light each fire, leave fresh fuel and matches and return to the first step. Counting in their head a fraction of a turn, they descend each of the sixty steps, count, step, count, step. As they reach the sixtieth – stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit go the gods –  and they count again. Count-step-count-step sixty counts and sixty steps and stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit. 

As they descend, as the sun rises, they will meet along the way she who is to light the flames for that next night, count-step-count-step stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit. Up a child goes to light the night’s fires, down comes the child who lit them last, one ascending, one descending always. Count-step-count-step sixty counts per flight, stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit for the next flight, twenty-four flights and twenty-four turns. The fires are always lit afresh each night as the fuel was exhausted when day dawned. This is important; the night fires must never go out. 

There is a thirteenth chair inside the circle of twelve. The figure in this chair does not stand-turn-bow- step-bow-sit, it does not move at all. It is silent, as are the other gods but it looks like a statue. Only the wind moving its robe, a darker greyish brown, .shows it is not of stone. No-one knows who this is. It sits, this figure, always facing out but as faceless in the deeply hooded robes as the gods are. The children who ascend light the fire at its feet and leave fuel and matches beside its seat but it acknowledges them not. 

A child has sometimes reported god number eleven nodded its hood at them or god number five made a sound but no-one knows for sure. No-one says anything about the thirteenth. The children whisper that they are afraid of it, the air feels  colder where it sits, they saw ice on its seat, at its feet. They say it is scary and they dare not look into the emptiness of its cowl. No adults ascend to where the gods stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit as this is forbidden so such stories are dismissed as the imagination of children. 

There are nights when the turns of darkness are longer, the air colder, the stars strange, that strange stories are told in huddled groups in warm kitchens.  People hear things in the darkness beyond the valley that they try their best to ignore . Strange and frightening noises, noises one cannot describe. No-one knows what these noises are for no-one leaves the town, the valley, and the hilltop to investigate; at least none that might have returned. Many mutter that they have no wish to know what the noises are, if it is not of the valley then it cannot be good. Were it good, would not the valley and the gods welcome it inside?

Then, no refugees, no-one from outside the valley had entered the valley in the time of any currently alive, not the eldest of the elders had heard of such a thing. What is outside of the valley should remain there! They cry and mutter, shaking their grey heads. We do not want anything from outside in here. The outside is where everything went bad, before we had our gods, before we had order. 

One these strange nights, the girl or the boy who lit the fires at nightfall are sometimes heard to mutter, once they return down the steps the next night, of strange things above. The child who they meet on the way down (that child’s way up) have spoken of how pale and afraid the descending child looks, how they met not their eyes, extended no gesture of greeting. Speech is forbidden on the steps to the hilltop.  No-one knows who forbids it or why; it simply is the Rules. Among the children – for adults are quick to shush and reprimand the child who attempts to speak of their sacred duty – there is hushed and whispered talk of strange things indeed on that darkest and longest of nights. Some, in hushed and hidden groups, claim that they say the thirteenth move. 

The gods have completed their rhythm of stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit to signal work is ended, the mothers or fathers are preparing the night meal, the children are, as children are wont, playing in the yard. Talking in whispered voices, giggles or exclamations quickly hushed by the others, a group often sits behind a storage shed. A bold child with dark hair, pale skin, one known for boisterous play, occasionally earning sharp  rebuke from an adult, holds his court. In an exaggerated whisper, he tells of his ascent and descent 2 cycles gone, for his duty fell upon the last long night. 

He had climbed count-step, count-step up the flights. Sixty steps, count-step, sixty more, it is such a long and far way! Thank the gods and Mum & Dad for the thick robes of the fire-lighter. 

He has a future as a story-teller, this boy.

Count-step, count-step, sixty more. On and on until the last count-step, count-step and the gods above made their last stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit as the boy entered the circle to fulfil his sacred duty. The gods were seated, unmoving and silent, the wind fluttering their robes. Each facing outward, hands (if hands there were in those voluminous sleeves) on knees (or where knees might be). The thirteenth more silent and still he seemed. The stone by his feet was cold, as cold as the wood was arranged in the metal bowl, so cold that the matches in his shaking fingers would not light, and a whiff of wind would keep catching them and extinguishing them. He was counting in his head or trying to but the numbers were getting muddled. He knew he had little time left! 

The fires must keep burning, night after night and especially on the night when the long dark came. The noises from beyond the valley never came close enough to see what was making them but no-one wished to know. They shuttered their windows, locked their doors tight and tried to sleep, tried to block out and ignore the cacophony. This night it seemed louder than before, more intense, more excited 

By his count, the gods were very close to their last stand-turn–bow-step-bow-sit before he should leave and begin his descent. He has the fires of the twelve gods lit but he could not get the thirteenth’s to catch. All around the howls and the screams and the strange noises were getting worse and louder. He saw trees moving in a wind, which was not there. Of course, all of this was not making his task any easier! Cold numbs fingers, shaking, strike the match, it flares! A whiff of wind and it goes out…The twelve gods sat on impassively and did nothing. They were not moving … yet. 

Those same scandalously insane individuals to whom nobody listened said that humanity came to this place twenty generations ago. A great ship which sailed the sky had brought them here, it was said. That ship had crashed and blown up but had contained what was called a Beacon. This beacon was sort of a radio which people could hear from a long way off and, well They had heard it and come to investigate. 

Back then the gods were unknown to the people, the town not yet built, the valley not yet found. It is said that they found the valley by pure chance one day, fleeing from Them like their lives depended on it. Their lives really did depend on it as it as it happened. Only half those who were fleeing made it into the valley where the gods were waiting. It is said that the flying machines of Them fell from the sky and smashed in flames onto the floor of the valley, killing the horrid occupants instantly. That was the last time one of Their feet touched the soil of the valley.

None the gods forbade could enter.

Once, they said, a great bird of metal had come close to the edge of the valley; a great giant of a bird like none seen before, all fire and light. It had hovered, screaming like a menacing beast in the air before vanishing into the mountains. People had whispered about dragons before lowering both their heads and voices. Watching the gods impassively stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit… stand-turn-bow- step- bow-sit and begin their next task.

They allowed no dragons in the valley either.

All around the town people wrapped themselves more firmly in blankets and tried not to look at their windows or even get out of bed. They must trust in the gods and not waste time, worrying was a waste of time, the Rules said, though no-one knew where or why it said that but the Rules were the Rules and the Rules kept them safe, just like the gods did. The noises would go away, the day would come and none of this would worry anyone. It sounded awfully close and loud though … sounded awfully, well, awfully human and like words…

Cursing was not allowed or encouraged, the Rules again but no-one was watching as the boy started to run out of both matches and time. The Rules don’t count if no-one is … the thirteenth was not looking outward impassively as he had been earlier, sleeves where arms should be folded in its lap. The thirteenth was looking straight at the boy. Or at least the darkness inside his hood was, for there was no face. He heard a shuffle somewhere and tore his gaze away from that shadow … the gods stood… 

It sounded awfully close now; there were different sounds now, crashes, rocks tumbling. Near one house a huge rock fell from the high valley wall right in their yard, squashing a half-finished table. All around the valley rim, there was noise, noise, noise… 

The gods turned.

The boy had passed through his entire – and by necessity, inventive – repertoire of curse words and was inventing several new ones, quite an achievement for a 6-year-old but he had always been an inventive child. He had very few matches left now and no fire whatsoever. Three matches left … flick… strike … flare … out. Two. Flick. … Strike … flare … out! One match. 

The gods bowed… 

Last match, oh gods oh gods light! Flick. .. Strike … flares … shit! No more matches. He’d gone through the ones, which had been here already, and the spares he’d brought with him, there were none left. The noises were reaching a feverous pitch and there were rocks falling into the valley, trees swaying without wind and falling over even… 

The gods stepped. .. 

He cast around for something, anything, any single thing to get this fire lit but he was running out of time… 

The gods bowed… 

There was a noise beside him and he caught a glimpse of light in the corner of his eye. It was a burning piece of wood. Who-? A hand held the wood. The hand was made of bones. The fire was clearly blackening the bone somewhat, but the owner of the bony hand appeared to neither notice of care. The boy numbly, silently, carefully took the burning wood by the safe end and dropped into the bowl by the thirteenth’s feet. The flame caught, the oil soaked wood in the bowl ate it up. He saw fingers of bone pointing somewhere over to his right, he looked. 

The gods sat… 

The noise started to die away as the flames rose and the gods silently watched but the thirteenth was still pointing. The boy, the danger over and his hide apparently saved, breathed. The thirteenth was now pointing with two fingers, he noticed. Curiosity overcame his fear for a moment and he looked right at the fingers, all bony and strange … at which point the fingers poked him in the eyes. His vision blurred with sparks and tears, the boy decided that leaving would be the wisest course and started for the stairs down to the village. 

He seriously broke the Rules many more times that night, stealing many a look look back as he descended. The thirteenth’s hood faced towards him a moment, seemed to nod and then turned back to wherever it normally looked at. He gathered himself and began his careful ascent down with eyes fixed ahead. He had broken enough Rules for one night; he decided and made sure to count-step, count-step being sure to be in time with the gods and their endless rhythm. He heard them shuffle and the gods stand-turn- bow-step-bow- sit and he progresses down the next flight… count- step, count-step… 

When the girl ascending crossed him on the steps, she was faintly surprised, though still very sleepy and not paying enough attention to ask too many questions, he looked both haunted and frightened though, which was odd. He was also smiling, which was odder… 

He remembered what he’d seen when the thirteenth had poked his eyes. In the explosion of stars which filled his vision, he saw inside the shadow and saw the face. It was a skull, it was a face, and it was a skull again…it was his face and it was not…it was the face of a boyishly beautiful man with eyes of different colours them it was his face…then it was nothing. 

The gods stand-turn-bow-step-bow-sit…stand-turn-bow- step- bow-sit… stand- turn-bow-step-bow-sit. .. Stand-turn- bow- step- bow-sit. …