This is hardly the time for jubilation. The kingdom is fallen, the crows feast on the bodies of the dead, a great plague covers the land and a blood moon presides over all, looking down and laughing its crimson glee at the chaos that engulfs us. Hope has fled to the farthest corners of our minds, and we cower in dark places, hiding from ourselves as much as each other, calling out to gods that we are sure no longer exist for a grace that we have long since forsaken. A dark shadow rolls across the land, and with each person it touches it grows stronger, sapping away our humanity and calling us to arms against each other, man against woman, parent against child, beast against bird.
This is hardly the place for a feast: in the middle of the battlefield, a table set for ten surrounded by the bodies of thousands, sweetmeats and sorbets laid out delicately on silver and crystal bowls, white and yellow and gentlest pink set in a field of deepest red gore, the ruin of many a man. Yet here sit the ten who have been called here, supping as though they dined in fields of gentlest daisies, where butterflies took the places of the sharp-beaked ravens that cluster around. They say little, these diners, as if careful not to break the spell that has been cast upon them by their own desires. The clink of silverware against glass is all that can be heard.
This is hardly the way to raise a child. In the basement of a chapel whose upper glory now lies in ruins, the woman in the black dress carries the infant king from one pond to another and shows him the sights that the waters bring her. The liquid has dripped in from above and spread itself in patches across the flagstone floor of the room, and she does not think to ask what might have seeped down within that rain, what loathsome fluid might have been dissolved in it and now rises in fumes from the floor, bringing her visions of what is, what was, what might be. She holds the child above each pool in turn and it sees its place in the earth.
This is hardly the town to find some peace. There are lights in the darkness of the old town, and shapes that shun those lights or cluster close to them, and who can tell whether those shapes are prey or predator. One such light is the candle above the broken door of a townhouse whose residents and owners are dead or flown, which has been taken over by the fat man who was once called the Abbott. He waxes by selling the salvaged stock from the old abbey one filthy glassful at a time, and a grey man nurses one such drink and waits, looking through the window every few minutes at the broken clock tower in the old plaza that has read midnight for eight months now.
This is hardly the woman to save the world. An acid-etched sword dragged along the ground by a weary traveller, her skin blotched and scabbed by disease, cuts a rut in the soil into which the poisonous rain spills. It is lit by the ghastly red moon, so that as the woman travels she leaves behind her a blood-red trail, as though she were slicing the earth open, as though she might take one of those neatly -sliced edges and pull back, flensing the world of its dying skin and purifying it for some other time. She seems unaware of the line she is leaving behind her, though. From beneath a mud-soaked hood her eyes stare forward, only forward, fixed on a destination she does not know.
This is hardly a minute since the end. In the scheme of things it is a focal point, an instant, a brief interlude between two greater periods of time, but such grand vistas, such a big picture, is reserved only for those who can see time for what it is, who can stand outside the details and see the patterns, the long periods of changelessness and stability. Viewed from within it is an eternity of sadness, with no clue as to its beginning or hope of its end. Even those who understand how the world came to be as it is now can barely remember how different it was such a short period of time ago. Devoid of light, their minds can form no images.
This is hardly an appropriate moment to think of gain. But there are men and women in rich robes who stand at the newly crowned top of a tower in the middle of the city and look down on the devastation and talk of power and profit. This is a moment between breaths for them, they who have placed themselves carefully to take advantage of instants like this. The coin may fall one way, or it may fall another - but these few have placed themselves with great precision to ensure that the coin finally rests in their quarter of the board. They appear to wait, to see who will come out on top, but behind the scenes they are moving.
This is hardly the garden in which kindness flourishes. An acid soil of despair and terror provide no nourishment to the gentler feelings, and yet there are still some weeds that struggle against the prevailing conditions. A young man on a cart strokes the hindquarters of the donkey that pulls him, brushing away the flies and ticks that trouble it. The animal struggles to pull the vehicle over the ruts and bumps in the road, slipping sometimes in the mud but always catching itself before it falls. They approach a figure before them, a hobbling figure drawing behind itself what at first appears to be a dull metal pole, but resolves into a sword as they draw near. The young man descends from his seat to offer it up.
This is hardly a matter for gods to concern themselves with. There are greater forces at work in the world, in the worlds beyond the world, in the hot stars that surround the sorry Earth, forces that are more fundamental than anything that might occur on one small backwater rock in the middle of nowhere. And yet there are eyes that watch the world with trepidation, knowing that from small seeds mighty brambles can grow, that there are some problems that will not resolve themselves - or at least may not resolve themselves in a desirable way. There are eyes that watch from the burning disks of stars, and from the cold black clouds that span the spaces between the worlds, eyes that watch and grow uncertain.
This is hardly a beginning. But the pieces are all in their places, and the board is set, the stakes have been calculated, the ante thrown in. Were it a game for real, this would be the moment when the players took a deep breath and looked each other in the eye, trying to decide who should make the first move. This is the pause before the battle, a silence pregnant with possibility and tragedy. It is hardly a beginning, true, but one must begin somewhere. We begin in the rain, in the darkness, on the edge of a city that was once bright but is now just a few pinpricks of light spread wide across a vast black plain.