The world has been destroyed. Two gods and a wizard gather to fight for what remains.
I shall not describe the desolation I have witnessed. I could not.
I rode above it, as I had foreseen I would, with only the soaring wings of my dragon between myself and utter destruction. I had lived with the knowledge of this coming cataclysm for ten months and used the time well – found my steed, sent certain messages into the sky, prepared certain charms – but all the time in the universe cannot prepare a man for the death of his world.
I drove my dragon far into the clouds but could not escape the death cries of whole cities, rivers, mountains, continents and seas. I stopped my ears with my fingers, bit my tongue to keep from screaming. Thank God the dragon had the sense to keep aloft for I could no more guide it than I had been able to stop the nightmare beneath us from coming true.
At last the tumult ended. Nothing remained but foetid rock below and the moon above, drawn close to keen over her brother's corpse. I was the only scrap of human sentience in the void. I could have borne it without weeping perhaps had not a few birds, chattering in panic, flown alongside us and tried to rest on the dragon's hide. One by one they dropped away. Then the silence was complete.
"Fly swift, curse you!"
The dragon banked under my flashing spurs. I had chosen my steed for stamina but a dead world is vast and not quickly charted. I forced myself to scan again and again the waste my world had become. At last I saw a river of dark blood finding its way leisurely through the smashed rock.
"There!" I cried. "Hurry."
We wheeled and began to trace the river to its source. I cannot tell how long we flew above the growing tide but my beast was weakening when a light finally bloomed on the horizon. I steered my dragon towards it. With the encouragement of certain necessary cruelties, it expired only a mile from my destination.
Ouroboros, world-serpent! It lay before us like a range of sinuous mountains, golden in the starlight. How long had I studied this beast? Long, long years of diagrams and conjecture. Despite my suffering, a gladness returned to me at the sight of it.
Let me tell you of Ouroboros. Wrapped once around the world, tail under its own tooth, Ouroboros was set to bind together all the elements of this planet that seek to fling off into night. The pressure of its grip binds earth to stone, sea to shore, drives the mountains into the sky, holds cities firm within their walls, traps love and anger and memory within the prison of one's body, urges light across the sky and sap through branch and leaf. It is a magic so ancient I have never gauged its origin though my studies have brought me knowledge of its steady diminution.
And here it was before me!
In the moments before we crashed into the slime and detritus around Ouroboros I saw what I had deduced from my studies, what had set me working night and day on the charms I now carried stitched to my palms. And working on the greater magic, so great it went beyond magic, in the pack I carried on my shoulder. The enormous tail, which the snake in its unassuageable hunger had been devouring for millennia, was bitten right through and gushed ichor into the ooze. The circle had broken. The land, the seas and everything on, under and over them – save myself and my dragon – had fallen into that suddenly released, rapacious maw. It could not be long before the rocks it lazed upon themselves crumbled and the snake swam out into the stars. Please God, let there still be time!
My fall winded me and it was a while before I could creep free of the dragon's body and pick my way towards Ouroboros. It lay in a golden pool of all that remained of the world it had devoured: a stew of light and valour and selfishness, splintered timber, peat, despair and flesh, so I could not approach too closely. Its fabulous eyes swallowed the moon whole.
"You have eaten well," I said, when I could come no closer. My voice was nothing in the vastness of the eternal night yet it heard me. That great head slinked round and an eye as deep as death regarded me. I stood in his gaze, pack in hand, my heart rattling like a pea in a whistle.
"But left something on my plate, I see," it hissed.
"A wayward crumb," I replied, determined to seem unconcerned.
"Come closer then, that I may finish my meal." Ouroboros' tongue flickered towards me and snatched the pack from my hand. All that was left to me of the old world was swallowed in an instant!
"I must..." I began but a sudden shimmer in the heavens interrupted me. Sidereal voices carolled around us. I cowered – I admit it – and searched the void for the source of the sound.
"Look up," sneered Ouroboros. "Another dinner guest knocks at the door."
I obeyed and saw the light of the heavens coalesce as if something drew the light inexorably to it. Something too was tugging at my soul, drawing it towards the fire that burned before me now, a fire of jubilant emotion stronger than any human could bear to feel. A woman – more than a woman – stood before us.
"Ouroboros, sweet worm," said a voice as soft as blood. "I came as soon as the news reached me. I rejoice in your freedom!"
"Lady Lilicilian," said the serpent with amusement. "I can ill afford to laugh on a full stomach. Since when have you gods delighted in freedom? Oppression is the air you breathe, duty your element."
"You wrong me," reproached the goddess. Her flames dimmed a little but I could no more look into her face than into the sun. "Can there be no admiration between eternal souls? Rumour of your untiring hunger has entered every corner of the courts of the gods. A goddess of love must needs admire so ardent and all-consuming a passion."
"Admiration?" said the serpent. It undulated from the ground, swept a golden coil around the goddess, darted a tongue into the fire that surrounded her. "Passion, is it?"
Lilicilian extended a sparkling hand and the serpent writhed with pleasure. I slithered away but as coils rose and fell huge as mountains around me it seemed impossible that I should live. I slipped wide-eyed into the slime of virtues and dross that had accumulated at the edge of the golden pool. Frantic, I poured power into my nails and hauled myself to relative safety – but slowly, for my spell-stitched hands were clumsy. The serpent seemed poised to collapse upon me when a voice that shook the rock on which we stood, the gaping moon and the very air we breathed, rang out:
"Sister! Know your shame!"
Breathless, I regained my place by the serpent's side. I was shaking with adrenaline and the emotions I had forcibly imbibed in the pool and stared once again with terrified eyes at the heavens. A darkness stained the moon, then obliterated it. Only the goddess shed light over the void. Even Ouroboros was plunged into shadow.
"Who comes to disturb me now?" it muttered.
The moon reappeared. It hung sallow over the wasteland as if weakened by its recent eclipse. My heart too seemed to shrivel in my breast and silence frosted my lungs.
"Quick, Ouroboros," said Lilicilian. "Grant me a boon and I shall be yours forever."
"What boon?" said the serpent.
"I want a world," cried the goddess. "Encircle once more for me," she crooned, matching her words with a sweep of her arms over the serpent's scales. "Cradle for me a world that I may people as I choose with paragons of beauty, satyrs and angels. It will be such a beacon of love and loveliness the stars themselves will fall to it and be extinguished in my seas."
With a surge of panic I cried out – for the beast was succumbing to Lilicilian's charms – "It's a peculiar way to celebrate your freedom, to become a slave." I am not sure that the goddess heard me, but Ouroboros certainly did.
"You would trick me back into bondage!" it cried. The goddess fell back as the serpent's head reared away from her. The waters seethed with its rage and I darted hither and thither to stay out of reach.
"No! Into partnership," assured the Lady. "A tithe – whatever you will – of beauties to gnaw upon as often as you wish. But let me have my world. And you will have my loving company forever in return."
"Hark, snake," cried the voice from the darkness. "Take her offer and you wrap not round this rock but round her little finger. She is never to be trusted."
"Who speaks, hidden there in the dark?" asked Ouroboros. For my part, I would fain not have known, so much despair flooded through me at the sound of that voice. I could see nothing but the faintest outline, the toss of an equine head, the sifting of dark fabrics on the chilly air.
"Fel," spat Lilicilian. Her flames blazed in disgust. "A godling – no more."
"And yet your brother, madam."
"And do you too come to bribe me?" asked Ouroboros. The great snake lashed its mutilated tail and the disintegrating rocks shuddered and shifted. Fel laughed as his horse stood firm.
'To bribe you? No! To master you, worm. You shall form me a world fitting to my tastes. And I and my fellow gods shall game there, cast armies across the new hills, raise and destroy cities and terror shall rise thick as incense in my nostrils."
"I shall never again be bound," said Ouroboros. "I am free."
The godling touched his reins and his steed, a spectre I now saw, picked its way with unequine fluidity down the scree towards the coils of Ouroboros and Lilicilian's spitting lights. As he rode, he spoke:
"Indeed," he said. "You have won your freedom through cannibalism of your own flesh and bone. That is a terrible price." Fel paused, looking up into the serpent's eyes. "I can and will make you pay that price again – a hundred-fold – if you do not submit to me immediately. Submit and your suffering will be light. You will devour a mere mile of your own flesh. But know that I can make you devour yourself completely or at least, devour enough to keep you in unending agony," snarled the godling. "What care I if it means my world is smaller than it was wont to be? It will be a world founded on pain and that pleases me far more."
"You have not such power," scoffed Lilicilian but Ouroboros coiled defensively and did not speak.
"When word came to me," said Fel, ignoring his sister. 'Of the tremors that signalled the final ripping of your flesh, I sought in the frigid wastes of space some remnant of the magicks that had bound you, of the One who first set your tail between your teeth and created the world you have so recently swallowed. I found – "
"You found nothing. There is nothing to find," cried Lilicilian.
Fel smiled. "I found this." From nothing a sword formed in his hand. All of us at once knew the blade's name – but did not name it for some things are too terrible to risk.
"With this blade I bind you as He once bound you," cried the godling and he held the blade aloft.
"Someone has been telling you lies," hissed Ouroboros. "That is not the secret of the weapon you bear. It is..."
"He's trying to trick you!" I cried and Fel, whether he heard me or not, flourished the sword with rage.
"I will not listen to your petty stratagems, worm," he bellowed. "Yield!"
Here was my moment. "Wait!" I cried and strode as steadily as I could into the penumbra of Lilicilian's light. Suddenly all three pairs of divine eyes were fixed upon me. Shall a man endure that and live? Yet somehow I bore it – even thrust a swagger into my shoulders, though I felt as if millstones were grinding my bones to powder. "Shall I," I shouted to them all, "the last denizen of the old world have no say in what hell it becomes?"
"Lights of our mothers!" cried Lilicilian. "What creature is this that hops so boldly into the great dance?"
"Good crumb," smirked the snake. "I had forgotten you."
"Kill it," commanded the godling. "I will have no second-hand trash in my world."
"It isn't yours!" screeched the goddess. The force of her anger almost knocked me spinning but I steadied myself and shouted up with an insouciance I could not feel.
"Nor yours yet, Lady," I addressed her with a bow. "This godling here," I said to Ouroboros and Fel's fury frosted the side of me that was not burning from Lilicilian's disgust, "has spoken much of the first magic that bound you here. I, last man of that world, am imbued – saturated one might say – with that magic. You will form a new world – for me."
"Let me guess," said Fel scornfully. "From the look of you it will have nothing in it but parchments and books."
"I want a world such as I have never known," I said shakily. "A world without magic, without gods, without even wizards."
Fel snorted but I went on: "A place held together not by an enchanted snake but by laws I have devised - immutable, universal, scientific."
Ouroboros sighed and its breath caused the golden pool to shimmer. "Then why do you ask it of me?" it said sadly. "I cannot create such a world."
"We will create it together," I promised. "You already have within you the power to do so."
"I have no power," said the snake but then an uncertainty swept into its oceanic eyes. "Your bag," it breathed.
"Enough! I will have my desire," cried the goddess. She threw her arms above her head and her mist of lights curdled and split. The mist took form and then there was no woman there but a beast. A cat, it seemed, huge, ravenous as a lover and unrelenting as a scorned wife. It turned and caught me in its searing eye.
Fel too prepared his weapon. The sword cut through his sister's lights, leaving dark traces on the eye. He drove his bone-horse towards me and I too, trembling but with my head high, rushed forward to meet both spectral rider and leaping cat.
"For home!" I cried.
It seemed we would all meet at once but at the last moment the cat flowed under the godling's horse as I leaped over it. My mantle shredded as a phosphorescent claw hissed through the air. I felt the flank of Fel's horse freeze beneath my hands – which came away bereft of skin. The godling elbowed me hard in the ribs, and his icy breath shrivelled my teeth when he turned towards me. But it was enough. With one hand I seized the pommel of his rapier, with the other I grabbed a loop of feline tail. The bones crunched in my fist and the cat howled. But the charms I had sewn into my hands held true: until cat and god ripped me apart, I would not be separated from either. Of course, that might not take long.
"Kill him!" screamed Lilicilian. Fel's fingers bored holes in my arm but the writhing cat lashed out and knocked him back before he could sever the hand from my wrist.
"Please," I sobbed, though to whom I know not. " Please – soon."
I felt rather than saw then, for pain had turned my eyes round in my head, Ouroboros belly up into the night sky. A vast cry, more full of fury and suffering than any one could bear to hear, shook the stars in their courses and even the gods I held close to me gasped in alarm. My charm, my great magic, was working! I forced my eyes open and saw through bloody tears the snake's mouth open in a scream of frustration.
"You tricked me!" it roared.
"No, I released you," I whispered.
Then, if I had not known that the world had already ended, I would have believed it was happening again.
It was as if we were caught in a terrible hurricane, through which hurtled mountains, insects, castles and oceans. Lilicilian screamed in my ear and Fel's curses blasted everything that flew too close to us. And then, suddenly, there was silence.
We were floating in the air, bathed in moonlight. Below us the world lay silver-green and peaceful. Every peak was back in its place, every river meandered to its old course, even the cities had fallen back stone on stone as they had been built. And there in the distant sky a slinking line of gold spooled out into the heavens. Ouroboros was truly free!
"Looks like my messages brought you here too soon," I laughed through my pain. "This world is not for let."
"You called us here," blazed the goddess, regaining her woman-form. Her hand writhed and bled in my own. Her hair struck at me like serpents. "That message to come was from – you?"
"You think you have won, fool," said Fel, his empty face scanning the planet beneath us. "But you have nothing but a dead world."
I looked down at the mountains, the seas, the cities glinting but empty.
"There's no life there," I agreed. "No anger or passion to quicken the blood. No hope." A smile tugged at my mouth. "Yet. But with your Love, Lady Lilicilian and your Hate, Lord Fel, distilled through the power of this blade you kindly brought me – there can at least be Hope."
And with that I said the last Word of Power ever to be spoken over the face of the Earth and we ended, those gods and I – equals in death, equals in the rebirth of Earth.
The rain that falls now over every corner of the globe, will be Life in its purist form: divine, passionate, fierce, seasoned – I hope – by my own humanity. It will fall on the lips of the dead and revive them. They will rise up and look around them. The world will not be as they remember – it will be strange, work differently – but they will grow strong again in it, and animals will slink in the shadows of the forest and through the grasses of the plains, rivers will slide under the blue sky and Life will go on.