The pyre was lit and the call would be made next. It was time again.
The banner flags flapped limply in the near non-existent breeze that the night air called forth. Their tattered rags were all that remained of the creeds who had once held this place as their holiest of holies.
Many cycles ago even the lighting of the pyre would have called forth a great ceremony. One final celebration before the darkness returned. This time there was no one save the man who lit it. He spoke no words of prayer, made no gestures of magic and thought no phrases of ritual. On his cane he leant as he made his way back down the thick stone stairs. Back to the arena.
Paths from all corners of the world converged on the arena. Anyone could come here and it was said that everyone should come here at least once. But the true test was whether any would come when the pyre was lit. The great creeds - those who called themselves ancestors of the builders - had given their word centuries prior. They would answer the call. There would be heroes ready to ride as soon as it was needed.
But time makes fools of everyone and only the smallest handful of esoteric researchers and die hard believers even knew what the great creeds had been.
“The Creed of Prayer,” the man said, at the base of the staircase. His voice creaked with age and his words came slowly. “Built on faith. You shall defy the expectations of reality and achieve the impossible. Yet, your belief will eat at you. The doubt will sicken you.”
The man ran his hand over the ragged flag that held the creed of prayers sigil. Bits of it fell as it was touched and disintegrated before it hit the ground.
“The Creed of Magic,” he continued as he limped his way around the immense trilithons that stood in a seemingly disorganised fashion within the arena. “Built with power. You will engage the worlds and impose your will on those who stand against you. But this power comes with a cost. The physical abhors the magical.”
The man coughed heavily as he reached, but didn't touch, the remnants of the magic flag. The sigil here was almost completely worn down. The colours of the cloth various shades of grey. Without another word, the man continued his slow, agonising walk around the arena.
“The Creed of Ritual,” he croaked, standing before the third flag. “Built with tradition. In a changing world, you are the bedrock of everything else. The tether to which the rest of us will cling to in even the stormiest of weather. Yet, change affects everyone. If even the most solid of foundations cracks, what bodes for the rest of us?” This flag the man actively spat on, causing some of it to crumble.
Grumbling something under his breath, he made his way to the fourth flag. A flag which showed a simple white X on a deep black background. This flag, in the shelter of two trilithons, was the most preserved of them all. The man brushed his hand down each of the bars of the X and bowed his head.
“The Creed of Death,” he said simply and nothing else.
The call had been made, and it would have to be answered. In cycles come and gone, the world would seem to hold its breath. Who would come? From where? To which banner would they profess?
Now, though, no one cared. The cities, immense, noisy and filthy, carried on as if there was nothing to be concerned about. No one came to the arena to wait for the arrivals. No one stood under a banner to announce their right. The lighting of the pyre was a three line story on the sixth page of every major paper in the world, and then everyone forgot.
A week passed. Two. Then a month. The old man never wavered. He waited, day and night, on the massive stone steps. He tended the pyre and anointed the ground beneath the flags. Each day he made his rounds, reciting his words, saluting each flag and spitting on the flag of ritual. And each day no one arrived to answer the call.
Two months passed. Then four. The world was moving faster each day, yet this little remnant of the past, tucked away in the backwaters of a forgotten nation with a long history stayed still. The flicker of the flame could be seen for miles and each night, its orange glow would cast shadows across the plains on which the hill it had been carved out of stood.
It took six months and fifteen days but when dawn broke, and the man awakened, a figure stood beneath the flag of ritual. He was dressed in a full length black coat, buttoned from neck to ankle. At the hem, the sigil of ritual had been sewn in a repeating loop. The same pattern was at his wrists and around his neck in a strange tattoo. Atop his head perched the skull of a large animal with thick, symmetrical horns crowning his head. He stood simply and calmly and said nothing to the man. The man, in turn, said nothing to him, but stopped spitting when he did his rounds each day.
Another two weeks passed before another figure appeared. This one was a young woman. She was dressed in a peasants clothes, torn and caked with mud. Her hair was messily cut, as if she had done it herself, and her face was a crisscross of cuts and scars. Her eyes were black and cast observant looks across the two already here. She stood beneath the flag of magic, hovering an inch off the dirt.
A full year after the pyre had been lit passed before the next person arrived. He wore simple blue jeans, hiking boots and a well fitted red and black flannel shirt, its sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He stood under the flag of prayer and he was the first of them to speak.
“The call has been answered,” Prayer said.
“We do not know why we are here,” Ritual replied, his voice echoing through the skull he still wore.
“The Creed of Death is yet to arrive,” Magic said.
Prayer scoffed. “Death is immaterial to those with faith.”
“We all have faith,” Ritual replied. “What we do not have is a complete body.”
“I am the Creed of Death,” the man croaked, coming back to the arena after letting the pyre burn down. “I am the final this time, as I was the first last,” he shot a look at the man in the skull. “Such is the right of the creeds.”
“Such is the right,” the others intoned.
“The question remains unanswered,” Magic said. “For what reason are we summoned here today?”
“Today?” Death asked. “Today? For a year this pyre burned while I waited, toiling in the dirt, sacrificing what little life I have left. A year ago I summoned you. And you left it too late,” he pointed with his cane into the sky. High above, just to the side of the moon, a bright light, brighter than any star elsewhere in the void. “The world ends because it is too busy to save itself.”