The entrance to the cave stood alone in an icy landscape, as a lone wolf hungry to devour everything in its path. The darkness that hid behind the opening was looking at the man like an angry eye, watching his every move. The sun stood on its last legs, almost falling behind the horizon and its light enhanced everything around the man. The brightness caused by the snow reflecting the rays made the scene look less sinister, but it wasn’t enough to deceive the warrior. He stood defiant in front of his inevitable doom, or as proud as a worn-out middle aged man possibly could. People called him Feroh, but the name given to him by his parents was long forgotten. He had given that up the moment the kingdom had conquered his village.
His road had been long and hard. Until now he had never been alone, but the cold had brought him to his knees and all his friends to the ground. Their end had been full of pain and suffering. The day his last love had fallen, something had broken inside the man. Not his heart, for he had lost that long ago, but more like the last thread he had used to cling to life. Now the only thing that kept him going was this. The last step humanity needed to survive, if there were any survivors left.
The man called himself a soldier of war, a king’s warrior, but those words were but memories. This icy world had ended every dispute in the kingdom, considering the shift of attention from power to surviving. His king had died in his arms, as vulnerable as any other man if not more. Spoiled by his own riches his resistance had soon fled him. At least he had died honourable, not wanting to take more food for himself than the common foot soldier. It might have also been futile pride, but Feroh had decided not to think about the latter.
His king had been a special man. He had killed every member of Feroh’s old family and still he had been able to make Feroh see the just of his cause. Instead of taking revenge on the murderer of his parents Feroh had joined the king’s warriors guard, not that it had mattered in the end. In the face of death all men are equal. Such is the nature of this new world. The ice and cold eat red and blue blood all the same.
Lost in thought Feroh kept standing still, not wanting to move and start the path toward his own demise. The couple of strings of hair that fell down his face, escaping the cap on his head, were frozen and clung on the side of his cheek. Never had he been so cold what was saying a lot considering the places he’d been. The breath he exhaled almost seemed to freeze mid-air and the tears that had always been present in the corners of his eyes were frozen solid. With what felt like all of his strength he had left in his worn-out body, he took a step. Followed by another and another. Slowly but surely his surroundings became darker and darker as the shade was devouring the last sunlight that crossed the mountains in the west. The cave was larger than Feroh had expected. The stalagmites that sprouted from the ground gave the area a dangerous setting. Only when Feroh looked up he saw the stalactites looming like spears above his head. He had not come this far only to be taken out by an unfortunate incidence so he watched every step.
Deeper and deeper he went, the hallway of snow only illuminated by an unnatural blue light inside the walls of ice. There weren’t any stairs yet he felt like descending every step of the way. The muscles in Feroh’s legs felt like they were about to spring any second, yet the man pushed himself to his very limit. This was the last time he would feel anything at all, it was only fitting that feeling to be pain.
Suddenly he felt a change. He didn’t know what it was at first, as if his body couldn’t remember what it was like. Then it struck Feroh. It was warmth. A sentiment so long forgotten it almost felt like it belonged to another life, one where he was alive and vivid, not this empty case of a man. Yet being in contact with something other than coldness brought back memories he had thought to be long forgotten. Without even realising what he was doing, he started undressing. The large layers of filthy, old clothes stacked up beside him until the only thing left on his body was a simple tunic. The ground was still cold under his feet, but the air was warm and welcome. Weirdly enough the ice around him seemed to be unaffected by the change in temperature and when Feroh touched it, it was cold as ever. How could the warmth that felt so good be nothing more than an anomaly. Maybe he was turning crazy. The fear for it had always been there. Since the day his best friend had died he had started wondering whether it would kick in. For in every man there is a darkness. In some it is controlled by their conscience. In others it sprouts in their darkest moments. Feroh had never felt like he was losing his mind and his gods knew he had had his fair share of loss. Still he wasn’t able to conceive an answer for this incomprehensible phenomenon. The only explanation he would be able to get is if he pushed through and found out for himself.
If Feroh had been smarter he would have known that at the beginning of the new era the cold had come too sudden, the crops had died too quick and the snow that had come falling from the sky shouldn’t have stacked as fast as it had. But he had been a simple man. One of the sword, not the quill. How could he have known that in the end the only thing left to him would not have been his sword, frozen in its shed, but his own wits. Never had he bothered to think any further than how to get faster and stronger, and now he was as powerless as any other man he had despised. But he was what was left of the rotten world mankind had greedily occupied. A resemblance of what happens when the strong break down and find out the weak are nothing more than the unfortunate, whether it is by choice or coincidence. At least the end of the world he had known had brought him that knowledgrasge, for whatever it’s worth.
Despite his wavering courage Feroh continued his way down, toward the unknown. Suddenly he could see darkened images of a fire on the walls ahead. Flickering shadows licking on a faint orange light. Was this what he had come here for? Had all his suffering not been in vain, but with purpose?
Feroh followed the obvious track and arrived in a hollow hall where a small fire was floating above a little pillar in the middle of the room. Since when did fire float and didn’t need wood to feed on?
Slowly he approached the little orange flame, wondering how it could radiate so much warmth.
Even though he felt the energy the fire was emanating, he never was too hot or too cold. Like the flame was adapting to his every need, as if it was more alive than fire normally should be.
“You’re finally here…” A voice whispered in the empty room, but it might as well have been shouting in the silence that reigned. Feroh shook his head. It had been so long he had heard someone else speak, let alone use his mouth to talk himself. Unable to grasp the incomprehensible situation, he remained speechless.
“Did you come to plea for the salvation of your kind or to wish them a painless ending, because the show that I’ve seen so far has been quite the embarrassment.”
Again Feroh was lost for words. How could he reply to the allegation that humanity’s distress had all been for nothing and was being belittled by an unknown entity. The worst of all was the truth he discovered behind the words. After the first few months the cold had kicked in, half of the city’s population had died and every man or woman still alive had only looked out for themselves. They should have united, Feroh realised. Mingled the strong and the weak together to look out for each other. He used to think the strong were meant to rule. They were the ones who had been given strength in life, but now he had a more altruistic point of view. Weeks of loneliness can do that to a man.
“I am here to try to save humanity…” He answered after a few minutes of hesitance. His voice sounded raspy, unused for a long period of time. For a little while nothing but silence lingered in the place and just when he started thinking the voice to be nothing more than his own imagination, it resonated once again, clearer now and evidently coming from the little flame flickering in the middle of the room.
“Ah, so you’re its last hope. The one who wants mankind to rise from the ashes when the snow has melted away.”
Something sparked inside his chest. It couldn’t be called hope, but more like the hunger for it. As if he wished it was something he was still capable of and the new world hadn’t yet burned it away. Unfortunately he knew that was impossible. Now all he had left was resolve and willpower. The two things that had kept him going all this way and even they started to drip away in sight of this flame. He couldn’t understand what was happening or interpret what this meant. Witchcraft is something every man fears, because it’s unexplainable and the unexplainable is the most desirable meal to feed nightmares.
“I won’t be saving you, nothing will. You’re not the first species to occupy this earth and you won’t be the last, although I’m willing to preserve you if I deem you worthy.”
Faroh was confused.
“How is preserving any different from saving?”
The voice’s chuckles echoed in the room, apparently indifferent to Feroh’s terror for a world without any humans in it.
“The difference is whether I feel like the next generation of your lifeform will have the same destructive tendencies as the one that was exterminating the earth’s recourses and inhabitants in your era. Should I hold them responsible for the actions of your people? No. But if I think a similar course is inevitable I must exterminate you all for the sake of the future of our planet.”
The being had said our planet. As if he was part of it. Feroh had come searching here because of a legend. The first lifeform here had been created and storytellers throughout the land had urged people to go looking for this place. Everyone had been desperate enough to believe in something, apparently the lies had been softer than the truth when hope had abandoned them as soon as the cold started to rule their lands.
“What are you exactly?” Even in his own ears his voice sounded short-winded. He wasn’t yet ready to ask the unavoidable question.
Again the ancient voice rang across the room without a trace of uncertainty, vast like the mountains and steady flowing like a river.
“I am what you would call a god. I’m the one who brought you fire and therefor created life, because they are one and the same. The others who were responsible for feeble tasks like helping you grow crops or heating the surface or even help people love without repercussions, they have all left this wretched world. I was the first deity of your world, it would only be fitting for me to be the last. When the night is coldest it’s only fire that can keep a man from freezing.”
It all had sounded so conclusive and Feroh tried to get a grasp on the told reality, but it all seemed so surreal, as if he had been walking in a dream for the last months and this was his last stop before going back to the surface.
“So why are you still here? Have you not given up on us yet?”
“You can call if foolish naivety or wishful thinking. I’ve destroyed entire species before without feeling a splinter of regret, but now it’s different. Creating humanity is something I’m proud of and to see it destroyed in mere seconds hurts me somehow.”
For the first time Feroh could sense doubt creeping into the voice. That being was searching for a reason to preserve the world of men, he realised. He himself was already lost, but in all fairness that was something he’d known even before entering the cave and he had come here at peace with himself. He knew he shouldn’t care whether humanity kept on existing because what had that to do with him? Maybe years ago he wouldn’t have bothered, but the new Feroh was a saviour. After losing so many people the thought of entire generations being denied existence almost resembled genocide.
“So what do you want me to do to convince you we’re worthy of survival?”
The deity rumbled and Feroh thought it was raging madly, until he realised it was actually laughing. Who could have known that a god would act so human.
“You already did. I didn’t tell you, but you are my creation. I feel what you feel. I feel your despair, your fear and your hope. You can’t deny it, I can see it clearly reside deep within you. Not for yourself no, but for others, innocents. You think yourself long gone and perhaps you’re right, but even when you’re down on your knees humans still feel the need to rise up and try better next time.”
Feroh didn’t feel the relief he was expecting. He only felt resolution. The god would save humanity. He didn’t feel grateful or even proud for the end was near and even after losing as much as he had, death still scared him, but less than it had.
“I honestly feel sorry for you human. No man should be predicted his death. It should be sudden and painless, but that’s not the case in the world you have lived in for all your life so it should be appropriate you meet your end in a way alike.”
He felt the heat roaring through the room. Eating at him. Now all Feroh could feel was terror. All he could think about was one question.
“My god,” he roared, “please tell me at least there is something after all of this. Will I see my wife and sons again?”
The fire spread around the cave and finally the ice was melting. It was giving path to a new world with new chances. Not for him though and for some reason he was thankful for that. His suffering had finally come to an end.
“No, there is no life after death. It is but one of the few lies you have told yourself every day.”
Finally Feroh got consumed by the orange flames, licking away at his flesh and burning him alive. It was quick but not painless. Feroh didn’t scream however, that would have been out of character and he had always been a man for courageous charades.