Mountain gods, they were called among some tribes. Others believed them to be the children of the stars. Behind closed doors and in hushed tones, though, they were known as demons. But everyone agreed on one thing: they were old, very old. Hence their common moniker, the Old Ones.
The Old Ones were easily recognised by their eyes. Milky and eternal, their gaze was said to hold the secrets of the world since it was born. Of course, no one had ever lived long enough to verify that.
When the first war broke out, they stood atop their mountains, silent and unmoving like boulders, shards of sunlight playing off their marble-like skins as they watched. Helping was not what they did – empathy eluded them the way warmth did – especially when it meant getting involved in the trivial disagreements of the beasts. Because to the Old Ones, that was all they were. Beasts that whiled away their fleeting time in this world fighting over territory and power, shifting in and out of their skins gleefully like children who didn’t know better.
Soon, they will cancel each other out. It was as simple as evolution sometimes. The humans had one theory right, at the very least.
The Old Ones rather hoped they would destroy each other before any of them managed to unearth the Ash City. Buried under the cinders of the old civilisation before it crumbled, the Ash City was home to a million souls out for vengeance. Souls that had long forgotten love or mercy –
Rather like the Old Ones.
No, Rajaveik thought. They were different. They were more. They were better, infinitely better. They had the power of knowledge, reaped from endless cycles of creation and destruction, life and death and everything in between.
When the horns and bells cried out their strident warnings for the second time in history, Rajaveik was standing amongst his brothers and sisters atop the ragged jaws of the snow-capped mountains. Frost sat upon his eyelashes, his skin, but he felt neither the sting nor bite of the cold. A perpetual winter sat within his calcified heart, protecting him from the cruellest of elements.
From a distance, they would appear a strange sight: a row of proud, silent guardians anticipating the clangour of steel against steel, the shriek of claws and beaks and the primal calls of the shape-shifters.
They anticipated the dissolution of two enemy clans.
Rajaveik could almost taste the end – if it had a taste, it would be this: the sweet, heavy scent of a gathering storm, mingled with the acrid fumes from distant forest fires in the south. He sent a fervent wish to the heavens, even though his people scorned the notion of a higher power. Would that the world be spared of the petty squabbles of its children at last!
The Old Ones waited and waited. For the flurry of feathers, the terrible cries of petulant beasts, the songs of the sea children as they worked their magic.
But none came. There was only a thick, curdled silence as the world rested on its haunches under the dense grey sky.
And then the clouds rained blood.
It came without warning. One minute there was only the silence that folded in on itself infinitely, and then a crimson deluge was upon them, like the blood of a furious sun.
Rajaveik took a while to understand. Blood ran in rivulets down the planes of his muscled chest, arms, face, and it was not until the metallic taste registered on his tongue that he came to the realisation.
The sea children had fooled them all. They had relied on the oldest trick in the book – not their secret ocean magic, but a ruse that allowed them to steal out of this broken world and straight into an arguably better one.
The king’s abandonment – the sea king, who would soon rather suffer all the fates of his people than desert them – and the secret stash of bones in the bottom of the sea all made sense now.
This rain was the last of their escape plan, meant to distract and obscure. And everyone – even the Old Ones, who thought themselves canniest of all living creatures in this world – had fallen right into their plan.
They should never have let them have those bones.