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Vice and virtue
The age of man was a time of vice and virtue. Unfathomable acts of selflessness accenting scores of atrocities. The world was plagued by the whims of man, and their exploits scarred the earth for aeons. From the valley of ashes came the arch-trees, grand and majestic, with branches that could block out the sun. From the arch-trees were borne the Great Flame, a blazing, ever-burning, inferno that pierced the sky and warmed the world. With the rebirth of fire however, came the cycles. With each sunrise, the world would be born anew, the day’s work undone, and the flame’s fuel renewed. Man slowly returned to the world. Each year, someone would emerge from the flame, each embodying one of the old vices and virtues the old ones held so dear.
The forests were once lush and verdant, their towering canopies covering the grasses below in a cool shade. The beachless coast, full of crags battered by waves, was the barrier between the vast plains and the endless ocean. The Great Flame was housed in what was once a clearing. The grass and trees surrounding it were scorched into ash by the heat of the Great Flame, untouched by the renewal of the cycles., and turning the space into a patch of dirt plagued by grey fog. As time went on, the embodiments themselves were slowly touched by the heat of the flame. The Eldest among them having skin burned to a near black, while the youngest were only a pale tan.
Now it was warm. The heat of the Great Flame was all but gone. The sun did not shine blindingly above. There was no calm breeze to refresh exhausted bodies, and no sea of white clouds in the sky. It was simply warm. It was in this warmth that a lone soul existed in perpetuity, unable to die and unable to forget the events of his eternal existence. He was surrounded by others, their muscles deformed beyond all usage, their skin charred black as onyx, with empty eyes that seemed to go on forever and stared endlessly into nothing.
In front of him was a small flame, flickering pitifully in the emptiness of the ashen field and illuminating the abyssal darkness that shrouded the landscape. He was The Last, the final creature borne of the now feckless fire, and the only one who has yet to return. The light unobscured his hard features. His pale skin stretched so thin over his old body, displaying his shriveled flesh and straining his hollow bones. His frail body was matched by an eroded spirit that had crumbled over the test of time, and showed through bleak and unblinking eyes. It was in this enfeebled state that The Last reflected, on a lifetime of sorrow and misery accompanied by the fading of the flame.
In the days before his flesh yearned and his will could carry him no longer, his youth was vibrant and bright. The kiln populated by husks and madmen was nowhere to be found, and in its place resided a verdant forest. The arboretum was pleasant, grassy plains and soft meadows mingled between rolling hills and flowing streams. The thick layer of ash and smog was replaced with an ocean of teal, clear and grand. The Last remembered many other souls who returned to the Great Flame, replaced by the catatonic collections of ash and charcoal he knew now.
It was several cycles after he had emerged from the Great Flame and had begun learning of the nature of the world. As he lay bathing in the sun, his view was eclipsed by a tall, broad figure. She had brown eyes, and a golden tan skin, her muscular form sculpted by many days of strenuous labor.
“Get up!” she said, pointing a finger directly in the face of The Last.
“What’s the point?” said The Last, indulging in a deep yawn. Closing his eyes before being promptly awoken by a stern kick to the chest.
“Come on, Make an impact!” shouted The Boisterous, winding up for another kick.
“Why did you do that?!”
“I thought it didn’t matter.” said The Boisterous, a smirk on her face.
“But it hurts now!” said The Last, rubbing the red spot on his chest
“Exactly, and you’ll remember it tomorrow, and the day after, and the next until that bruise heals. So I have made an impact that will last 4 cycles, 5 if I’m lucky.”
The Last jumped up and rubbed his chest, this was the first time he had experienced true pain since he emerged. It felt sharp, and forceful. It took his breath away, and lingered long after. It was interesting.
“Well are you just going to sit there all day, or are you going to actually accomplish something?”
Wanting to repay the woman in front of him for this new understanding of pain, The Last let out a primal scream and charged forward wildly, only to be lifted and thrown into the massive arch-tree he had been resting under moments before.
The sparring match went on until The Last could no longer move. Covered in cuts and small scrapes, he sought treatment from The Wise. The Wise had become both a physician and a psychologist for the group, always knowing the best, and usually only remedy for any problem that arose. The Last had acquired particularly nasty gash on his forearm, one that would take a considerable amount of time to clean and dress. During the procedure, he asked The Wise.
“What keeps you going?”
The Wise continued to dress the wound in complete silence, contemplating his own reason for being. “I want to help the others.” He said it squarely and flatly.
“Is that it, you don’t mean to make a lasting impression?” said The Last, confused at the simplicity of the answer.
“Do I need to?”
“Well… no, but... shouldn’t there be more substance to it?”
“Why, so I can fruitlessly chase an ideal?”
“I’m sorry for asking.” said The Last, embarrassed.
“Don’t be.” The Wise showed no sign of anger or frustration while he finished dressing the wound.
As The Last got up, inspecting the wrappings covering the bloodied gash, he thought about what The Wise had said. He thought of devoting one’s own existence to the service of others, rather than chasing this idea of “impact” that The Boisterous had left him with. These thoughts clouded his mind and left him pensive as he began to wander. Away from the ever shining light of the Great Flame, and through the forest of arch-trees, until he settled along the shore.
He sat and watched as the tide came in, inundating the dry grass and flooding the plain.
As The Last gazed in awe at the majesty of the waves, crashing as they tore small plants from the parched earth, he was startled by a voice.
“Are you lost?” the voice sounded weak, but sweet, each word dictated with absolute focus. “If you are lost, I can help you find your way back.” the voice carried surprisingly well in the wind, and The Lost couldn’t see the speaker with the vast distance between them.
“I’m not lost,” shouted The Last “but could you move a bit closer, I can’t really see you when you’re standing all the way over there.”
“I am afraid, I cannot” the voice said in its strange whisper.
“I have already said, I am afraid.” the voice seemed noticeably frustrated with The Last’s misunderstanding of their words.
“Who are you, and why do you hide in the shadows?”
“I am The Timid,” replied the voice “and I hide to avoid the others. Very few come this far, and the few that do are not as inquisitive as you are.” the voice was wavering, and its dulcet tones were muddled with the crashing of the waves.
“Why do you hide, is that any way to live?” The Last was being quite sincere, looking for answers to the new crisis that troubled him.
“Who are you to judge?” the voice quickly replied, it’s melodious tone tainted with scorn.
“I apologize, I am looking for answers and seem to have no one else to turn to”
“Well, I hide so I never have to ask those questions.” replied the voice. “If I go and see the others, or speak with them, or even breathe their same air, I might get to thinking about my reason for being, and that’s just too scary for me.” the voice was faltering now, choking up and stuttering as if the speaker was crying .
“Then why speak with me?” said The Last. “Might I breathe your same air, or cross your vision?”
“In this evening light you are barely visible, and the sea air takes your breath long before it reaches me. It is almost like talking to myself.” the voice had composed itself, resuming its near whisper.
The Last was perplexed, nothing this voice in the distance said seemed to make much sense, but he couldn’t stop listening to it. Soon listening became thinking, and thinking became an infatuation with this nonchalant way of thinking. Why sit pondering when you could throw all of your cares to the wind, reveling in a world in which nothing matters except for your own happiness.
After speaking for a long while, the moon began to rise and the voice faded slowly in tandem, finishing the conversation with a quick “Please come back tomorrow!” before fading into obscurity. The Last returned to the spot where he had been disturbed this morning, closing his eyes and sleeping soundly while he hoped to be disturbed again the next morning.
This cycle of events went on for, what seemed to The Last, an eternity. To him, it was an eternity of bliss. Each morning, The Boisterous would give him a hands-on lesson about impact. A lesson that would only end around midday when he could no longer move due to the bruises that covered his body. While the sun loomed high overhead, his conversations with The Wise would always disquiet the mind. However, slowly but surely, the mental turmoil they left in their wake became introspection and hours of conversation the next day. As soon as the sun hung low in the sky, and the sky turned from the teal of day to the oranges and magentas of evening, The Last would make the journey to the shore. The Last spoke with The timid about nothing of importance. They simply appreciated the beauties of the sky and sea, of the grand arch-trees and the watercolor sky they sat below. When the moon finally arose, and its faint blue light began to gain purchase, he would lay down in his same spot, and sleep under the glow of the Great Flame until he was awoken again.
As the Last sat in front of what remained of the Great Flame of his youth, surrounded now by fields of ash and charcoal instead of the lush greenery that he had grown so fond of, he watched the charred bodies sit there and do nothing. They had passed through the once Great flame, choosing to leave this world behind for whatever awaited them past that glowing door. The Last stared intently at the flickering embers that sat in front of him, and reached out a single shriveled finger. As he prepared himself for his passing into the new world, he reflected on the death of the one he inhabited today.
It all started when the Great Flame began to slowly die out. With every passing day, it began to grow smaller and smaller, the once proud pillar of fire retreating to half its original size. At dawn, The Last sat up and awaited The Boisterous in their normal meeting place. Although the mornings had been getting shorter with the fading of the flame, waking up before the first blow was struck had become a successful strategy. Dawn turned to morning, and morning nearly became midday before The Last found his companion. She was furiously banging a rock against her arm, every swing landing with a hard crack.
He quickly tackled her, tearing the stone out of her hand and quickly looking to inspect the damage. To his surprise, there was none. Her olive skin had remained unscathed through the ordeal. The only trace were shards of stone that had shattered against her flesh. Suddenly, she began sobbing.
“I-I can’t see the marks.” her voice trembled with every word. “Let me see your chest!” Suddenly she sprang up, ferociously tearing the loose clothing from his torso.
“What are you doing?!” The Last was powerless to stop her as she continued to destroy his clothing. As soon as she exposed flesh, her expression grew somber. His skin was completely clear, free of the bruises that normally lingered in the early morning. “What happened?” said The Lost, finally forcing The Boisterous off of him.
She was silent. The woman rose from her place and shifted slowly towards the Great Flame. Everyone surrounding the flame stopped, staring at the husk that shambled towards the pyre. She fell forward, arms outstretched, and embraced the flames with her entire being. Immediately, she began to laugh and twirl around in the flames as her skin began to char and her eyes began to boil. Throughout the ordeal she was smiling, until she exited the flame. She exited the same way she entered, sullen and grave, as she took her place and collapsed on the ground.
Rumors soon circulated that she had “liberated” herself by returning to the flame, and soon most of their group had joined her. All with the same gruesome dance followed by an eternity of sitting in silence.
The morning had completely vanished, superseded by a pitch black night that faded into high noon. He would still visit The Wise, out of tradition and out of a deep loneliness that had come over him. The Wise’s usual stoicism gone as he tried desperately to revive the Great Flame. He would run from place to place, pulling branches from the trees or shoving webs of vines into the flame. All to no avail.
All but a few had “returned to the flame”, and for all of his efforts, The Wise had found no success. The noon had almost vanished, and their meetings had grown shorter in tandem.
“Come quickly!” The Wise shouted from across the clearing. When The Last eventually found him, he was darting about frantically, picking up clumps of ash and small stones. “I’ve done it! I’ve found the solution!” The Wise was caked in ash from head to toe, grey stones embedded in his earlobes, and his simple clothing replaced with ornate vestments woven from vines and wildflowers.
“What do you plan to do?” The Last said, having grown accustomed to The Wise’s desperate plans.
“I’m going to help the others.” as The Wise said this he began darting around the clearing, tangling any bystanders he found in the web of vines surrounding his body. “We will be the kindling that reinvigorates the flame!” screaming, The Wise launched himself and his hostages into the flame with a crazed laugh. However, once within the pyre, he sat cross legged and unmoving for hours, unfazed by the jovial laughter or morbid screams of those he had dragged in alongside him.
After a few minutes they emerged. The vines entangling them burnt into their tissue, further deforming their decimated bodies. One by one they all marched, single file into the same corner that all of the others had, collapsing and sitting in that same plain fashion. The final one to emerge was The Wise. The vines had been burnt to ash during his extended stay inside of the conflagration, and he emerged with the same blank expression as the rest, collapsing and sitting, becoming indistinguishable from the rest of his liberated brethren.
Even before the end of the noon gave way to an endless evening followed by a starless night, The Last had begun spending much of his time at the coast with The Timid. They would speak of the arrival of the cold, or the gathering of smog clouds that had obscured their watercolor sky, but never of the decline of their world. The Last had stopped trying to coax the voice from its hiding place and accepted it as a part of his life.
The day of The Wise’s liberation, The Last had resigned himself to introspection. His trip to the coast canceled in favor of deep meditation, an act he had seen The Wise perform in the days before he went mad. He no longer thought of the weather, or the waves. Instead he grieved for his lost comrades, watching as the Great Flame they had fed themselves to dwindled into little more than a bonfire. The harsh reality of his new existence brought out a cold stoic, hardened by the trials and tribulations of his youth.
His final trip to the coast was dismal. Where forests and shrubs once thrived, dunes of ash and coal remained. Streams once clear and pure, ran black, filled with a thick tar. The clear air and persistent heat of the flame were replaced by a thick cloud of dust and an oppressive warmth that only served to remind him of what he had lost.
Upon his arrival he waited for the usual quiet greeting. He waited in front of the waveless ocean, listening closely for the voice to appear. He waited until the darkened evening was replaced by a pitch black night, falling asleep on the crags of the shore. He awoke to the milky light of the evening, and returned to the clearing thoughtlessly. He greeted his liberated friends, and noticed one more charred corpse had joined their ranks, hiding in the sea of bodies.
The Last loved those early days, and he would love them again once he returned to the flame and was reunited with his companions. He reached out and touched the flame. Suddenly he felt a sharp pain rush across his body, flames like shards of shrapnel cutting across his skin. This sensation was new and exciting, for the first time in a long time a smile crept across his face as he was accepted by the flame.
As his old bones began to crackle in the heat of the flame, a grim realization set upon him. He wasn’t going anywhere. The momentary bliss caused by the sensation of flame on his body was just that, and the pain began to intensify. He bellowed into the endless nothing as the flames used his decrepit form as kindling. They quickly spread across his dried skin until reaching his face. The Last no longer felt pain, only the sensation of a cool liquid flowing down his cheeks as his eyes began to melt.
Slowly the flames left the body of The Last. His already deformed state made identical to the ebony husks he was surrounded by for so long. He shambled to join his brethren, collapsed into the ash, and began to sit. His soul forever trapped in a tomb of flesh and bones, doomed to consciousness in a worthless vessel, awaiting the end of the world.