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At the foot of the last mountain, sat the last village.
And in the last village lived Tao.
It was Tao's birthday.
While he was working the corn, his friend Samuel shouted over him to come quick.
Tao ran to the edge of the village where the "death barrier" was,
and beyond the death barrier was his father, lying on the ground.
Tao ran to his father.
His father wasn't breathing.
Tao dragged the old man back over the death barrier and the village doctor checked his father over.
The doctor said, "I'm sorry, he is dead."
"The snake did this."
The next day the village folk came to Tao's house and said "Isn't it a shame...", "Sorry for your loss", and so on, and Tao thanked them.
And then he was alone... again.
He hoped he'd get good at being alone soon.
That night he watched the great mountain glowing with the light and madness of the New Gods.
Who knew what they were doing up there...
When Tao slept, he dreamt of the snake that had killed his father; its fangs curved like scimitars, its eyes full of rage and malice and pride,
Ruled the evil over that it exacted on the village folk for hundreds of years, bringing disease, and misery.
And now, it had brought death to his father.
Tao got up just before dawn, he packed some water and food into a satchel,
then went to the pyre where his father had been cremated and took his father's ashes,
and put them into a jam jar.
Then he walked out to the boundary of the village, to the death barrier.
"Stop!" someone yells.
It was the village doctor.
"You step over the barrier, you can die. Leave the snake be, you can't fight him."
Tao closed his eyes and stepped over the death barrier, and walked out into the wilderness.
Tao trudged about the forest all day looking for the snake, but found nothing.
He saw his father's face in the trees.
Where had his father gone? This man who'd given him his time, his love and taught Tao how the world worked.
He brought Tao breakfast in the mornings and blankets in the evenings. He brought him up!
But his father had gone off into the dark, alone now.
And Tao knew he couldn't bring his father breakfast, or bring him blankets, or bring him back.
The snake, the bastard. He would kill him.
Tao's out of water and thirsty. He spied the great mountain above the trees and walked towards it.
At the foot of the mountain was a river and he drank from the river for a long time.
When he looked up again, there was an old woman, sat a few feet away on the ground.
The old woman took a swig from a hip flask; Tao turned to leave.
"Hey!", the old woman yowled. Tao ignored her.
She said, "You look like someone with unfinished snake-related business."
Tao stopped. "What do you know about the snake?"
"Green one, about yay high?", she said.
She pointed up the mountain. "I saw him! Went that way, he did."
"Did he know", Tao said.
"Oh yes! And a mighty sneaky sneaky wiggle he had about him also."
Tao began to walk away.
"That's where the snake lives, you know", the old woman said, "on the mountain."
"That's where he thinks up his evil plans, and he was mumbling something about how he'd just killed an old man, too."
"Well, that was beyond coincidence", Tao thought. "Maybe she knew something."
Tao started off for the mountain instead.
"Hey!", the old woman yowled, but Tao ignored her.
He walked for some minutes, before he spied another figure ahead, sat on the ground.
It was the old woman, again.
"How did you get here?", Tao said. She took a draw on her hip flask.
"You need a guide", she said, "a chaperone. He's awful tricky to beat, old Snakels."
Tao said, "Not to be rude, but you are drunk, and old, and a bit useless, really."
"You are being rude", she said.
Tao walked on, but she followed behind.
"I know things", she said. "I know things about the snake and the New Gods, too."
"Rubbish", Tao said. "Is it?", the old woman said.
"Take me up the mountain and I'll teach you how to kill the snake."
"I'll kill him myself with my bare hands", Tao said.
"No", the old woman said. "No, you won't."
They looked about under rocks then, and holes, but the snake wasn't there.
"He must have gone further up". And so they climbed.
They slept rough and in the morning they had breakfast.
For Tao it was bread, for the old woman it was her hip flask.
They continue walking up the mountain. By midday, they are high enough to look down on the landscape properly.
And there was Tao's village, unremarkable. Just a few buildings, wisps of smoke in the valley.
"Are there other villages in the world?", Tao asked.
"No". "Were there?"
"Yes". "When?"
"A long time ago. There used to be very big villages, called cities, once. Lots of people back then."
"What happened?"
"Ambition", the old woman said.
She drank from her hip flask.
"Say, boy, when you kill the snake, and he's gone, you think you'll be happy forever then?"
"Yes", Tao said without pausing.
"Hmm", the old woman said. "Hmm."
They looked about under rocks then, and holes, but the snake wasn't there.
"He must have gone further up". And so they climbed.
They slept rough again, and woke to a gray and sickly dawn.
They set off in silence and soon they came into a fog that collected about their knees.
The air smelt metallic. The daylight looked wrong.
"What's happening?", Tao said.
The old woman said nothing, only swigged on her hip flask.
Tao saw something in the dirt, silver and complicated. "What's that?", he said.
"Old science", the hag said.
"What's science?". The old woman said, "Sort of like magic, but it works."
There were more machines now, silver, glass, great towers of geometry and industry.
"Who built these things?", Tao said.
"Well, the New Gods, of course."
"Why have they abandoned them?"
"Because all children get bored of their toys eventually", she said.
And about them appeared lines and symbols, esoteric glyphs in the air, and lights flashed in the distance,
and a great wind picked up and the metallic reek grew thicker.
The rocks were not rocks now, but hexagonal metal slabs, and the trees were twisting candles of crystal.
And ahead glowed a pedestal, and upon the pedestal was a set of spectacles.
The old woman picked them up. "Here boy", she said.
"These are the glasses you'll know the snake with."
"Glasses?", Tao said. "My vision's fine."
"No, it's not". She put them on his face.
Suddenly, Tao spalled from his body and senses and saw the world with her mask on.
A tangle of fields and dimension, the height of time, the width of space.
And he knew then that matter was both a point and a wave and a joke.
And he saw the logic at the bottom of everything, the madness at the top,
and the shape of becoming, and the dance of decline.
And finally then he saw himself, in true perspective.
A speck on a blob on a smudge on a blemish on a fleck,
in a grain of galactic sand amid a billion other beaches,
and those beaches themselves only made up more grains of sand, and more grains of sand,
and more grains of sand, and more grains of sand, and more grains of sand.
The old woman removed the glasses.
"What was that?", Tao whispered.
"Oh, 31st century science. Bit before your time."
She gave him the glasses. "Keep these safe, eh?"
"Who are you?", Tao said.
"Oh", she replied. "Who's anyone?"
They looked about under rocks then, and holes, but the snake wasn't there.
"He must have gone further up". And so they climbed.
The next morning they wake after dawn and have a fine view of Tao's village below.
Tao said, "Why is the world dead?"
The old woman said, "Everyone got clever. Now they're gone."
"Where are they gone?", Tao said and pointed to the sky. "There?"
She shirked. "Come on, time's getting on."
They continued up the mountain, the peak high above, the village low below.
Tao thought again of his father. He imagined the days ahead as empty and overcast.
Noone to talk to, truly. No more games, no more laughing.
When he found the snake, he would rip it apart.
He spied a stream, then, and the water was red, and he realized it was blood.
The stream of blood grew thicker as they climbed. No, it was a river of blood.
And on the ground were notes, and coins, and precious jewels, and staffs, and sceptres.
The ground was scorched, and from the ground rose smoldering vapors,
and the air stank of death and glory, and dominion.
And ahead, Tao spied a sword.
It was sticking out of the soil. Its hilt glinting red and purple and gold. And the blade an opulent silver.
They sidled closer. "Take it from the ground then boy", the old woman said.
"What is it?", Tao said. "That is the sword you'll kill the snake with."
And with a great effort, Tao wrenched the sword from the ground and brandished it.
And great plumes of fire and lightning leapt from the tip and set the ground alight.
Tao brandished it again, and out shot swarms of locusts and wasps and he bellowed a great stentorian laugh.
And the laughter echoed out over the plain of the mountain.
Everything was power. Everyone would listen to him now.
The village elders, the oracles, the bullies and the brutes.
Hell, even the snake, when the time came.
He laughed again and the mountain was only fire and lightning then.
His only power and malignancy and rage.
"Thou shalt always kill", he thought.
And he knew that noone could do a damn thing to stop him, ever again.
And more than that, with a dastardly certainty he supposed that with this thing,
he could end the world, if he wanted.
The next morning Tao ate in silence, and the old woman drank in silence, and they got walking as usual.
Tao said, "How long until we find the snake?"
The old woman drank, said nothing.
"Isn't that thing empty already?", Tao said.
She turned the flask upside down and pulled out a constant stream of booze that didn't end.
"Are you one of the New Gods?", Tao said.
"Do I look new?", the old woman said.
"Well, what happened to the New Gods?"
"The snake", she said.
"It killed them?" "Sure."
Tao stopped. "Well, how in the hell do you think I was gonna beat it, if it killed the New Gods?"
"The thought hadn't crossed my mind", the old woman mumbled.
"Still, the glasses and sword will serve you well. We have a few more things to collect here."
"Like what?", Tao said.
But already, he heard music; upbeat, calling to him.
They came on the remains of a great party; empty bottles, discarded trinkets.
"What happened here?", Tao said.
"Abandon", the old woman said.
In ruins of an old and ostentatious house, burnt partly to the ground, was a tankard that glowed.
And inside the tankard was what looked, and smelled like mead.
"Go on", the old woman said. "Drink a little."
"What is it?", Tao said.
"This, is the indulgence you'll kill the snake with."
And with that, Tao drank.
And when the cup came away, the old woman grabbed Tao's hand, and led him into a dance.
The mountain began to spin about them, the colours blurring.
"What's happening?!", Tao yelled.
And the old woman yelled, "That's it! Dance, you bastard!"
And Tao and the old woman danced across the mountain, over the debauchery and under the moon.
And suddenly, Tao was not thinking of his father; or the snake, or the village.
"What if there's no point to anything?" the old woman sang. "Who cares?"
"Who cares?" Tao agreed.
"Tragedies happen, people die. It's all a game, it's all a facade!
"There's no salvation, no meaning!"
He saw into the heart of things now and knew there was no "hard";
That everything was suffering, and even that didn't matter.
A joke God was playing on the world, for nothing more than his own sick amusement.
They moved to the cliff. Feet stepping in perfect time, the stars spinning about at a dizzying pace.
And the mountain echoed with the music of reckless abandon, and nothing mattered now.
"Fuck 'em", Tao thought. "Fuck 'em."
And they danced the nihilist waltz, long into the night, until the sun began to rise.
Tao woke with a throbbing head, and a mouth that tasted like death.
The old woman was already up, smoking a pipe.
"All well?", she said. "Mm...", Tao mumbled.
"Was the dancing really necessary?", he said
The woman nodded. "Certainly was!"
"Come on, we're very close now. The snake can't hide forever."
"I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what the hell is going on!", Tau shouted suddenly.
"Where are the New Gods, where is the snake, and who are you?!"
"Yeah, whatever. Come on, then."
She set off walking, but Tao didn't move.
She paused, rolled her eyes.
"Alright, alright," she muttered. "What's the year?"
"Hmm... 326," Tao said.
"By your calendar, yes. By mine, it's the 98th century."
"Your ancestors did some wonderful things; became very powerful and wise, alright?"
"Those objects; the glasses, the sword, the tankard; these are the things they left behind. Relics."
"Relics of what?" "I'll show you."
"No!" Tao yelled, "No more games!"
The old woman snapped then,
"Look!" she said, "You're only doing all of this because you think you killed your father!"
"He asked you what you wanted for your birthday, and you said, 'a meteorite.' "
"So he went out beyond the death barrier to find you one. And that's how he ended up dead."
"So don't take all this out on me."
Tao was silent awhile, then said quietly, "How do you know that?"
"Because I'm really, really clever. And I'm trying to help you here, so would you give an old woman a break?"
Tao thought about this and collected his things. They walked on, in silence.
The village was almost invisible below, and the mountain peak was very close.
They turned a corner, and came upon a picture of a king. Then a queen, then more.
The portraits, regal and proud; with faces that spoke of legacy, and divine right.
They pushed on, and now the portraits were of scenes Tao didn't recognize;
Of battles and rulers, and machines, and great structures that kissed the skyline.
Episodes from his species' history that he'd never heard of, let alone considered.
Millions, dead and gone. Whole nation states turned to dust.
The great human project, forgotten; as though a dream upon waking.
Testament to a time when billions existed, on a fragile marble, among the ink dark of space.
Holding out against the hostile cosmos, and yet worse threats that lurked, within themselves.
And somehow, for a long time, against all odds and sense, they did hold out.
Bettering themselves slowly, as a toddler attempts to climb a set of steps.
Then, for some reason, devolving, again.
The great sleep; the great forgetting.
Sent to bed, with no supper.
Then decline, then savagery, then dust.
And ahead, Tao spied, was a pair of armoured boots.
"There," the old woman said. "For as long as you wear those, you'll never die."
"You can live into your thousands, if you like.
"This is the armour you'll defend yourself with, from the snake." They fitted perfectly.
"And one more thing," the old woman said.
She took from her shawl a necklace.
And on the necklace was a locket, and in the locket was a picture
of Tao's father.
She put the necklace over his head.
"To remember," she said. "This is the story you'll kill the snake with."
He felt finally ready to do battle since he'd begun his adventure, up the mountain.
He knew it would only be a short walk, now.
The peak was just a few yards away. It was only a small plateau, and the wind was high here. And it was raining.
And there, sat the snake.
Its back turned to Tao, staring off into the dead wilderness below.
"There you are," the old woman said. "Do as you will."
With the glasses of the New Gods on his face, he saw the snake in its essence:
Its black heart, its cunning mind, its contempt for the last remaining humans.
Tao approached, silently. His heart and his temples, his eyes wide, his hand clutching the locket of his father.
And he thought of his father then. He thought of the man dead; thought of the futility of death.
And he closed his eyes, and screamed, and brought the sword down with such power that it struck a grating chord out into the rain.
And rang all the way back to the mountain's base.
He opened his eyes.
The snake, was gone.
Tao turned around to the old woman.
"Where did he go? Did you see him?"
"No," said the old woman.
"I didn't see him, because he doesn't exist."
The rain was getting heavier.
Tao stood silently in his armour.
The old woman said, "Did you really think there was some evil snake, on a mountain,
bringing death and misery into the village?"
"Did you really think the world was so simple, that only one thing is responsible for all the bad days?
"God, what is it with you lot?!"
"You have everything, you know that? And you spit on it, like living in some enormous mansion."
"And one day, you find a chipped brick, so you burn the whole damn house down."
"You've got everything down there. I gave you everything."
"Endless food, endless life. And you're still miserable."
"Shit, do you know how difficult it is, playing deity?"
"I'd give anything, just to give up, knowing everything."
And on the skyline appeared shimmering, and translucent buildings. High-technology and science.
"They got everything they wanted, your ancestors", the old woman said.
"And they still weren't happy. The snake was still there; misery, chaos and death."
"They tried sending it away with perfect knowledge, they tried killing it with ultimate power,
"They tried forgetting it with abandon, they tried living longer, they tried clinging to each other;
"The spectacles, sword, tankard, armour, and necklace."
"They looked about under rocks then, in holes, but the snake wasn't there. 'He must have gone further up.' "
"And so they climbed, and climbed, and climbed,
and found nothing. It was just them in the universe, and they were still miserable."
"So the New Gods are all gone now. All except me.
"And your species is gone too, now. All except your village, the old mode of living.
"I keep you lot around because it's a nice souvenir, to how we were once."
"I'm sorry your father is gone. I'm sorry you'll never see him again.
"But there's a whole village down there, of people who love you.
"And here you are, screaming at the wind on a fucking mountain."
"Bad things happen, and the reasons for them are complicated.
"There is no snake, no witch, no evil genius.
And there'll never come a time when everything lasts forever, nothing hurts ever again."
"But the strength is in taking a good look into the abyss, into the eyes of the snake,
and then choosing to still, be a good human."
"Even in the face of great uncertainty, and malice, and that day when everything will be gone, forever.
It's not gone yet. It won't be, for ages.
Don't waste your time on snakes and windmills.
'Say goodbye."
She took the jam jar out of Tao's satchel and gave it to him.
She put her arm around his shoulder.
Slowly, Tao opened the jar.
And the wind took the ashes of his father and flung them out over the mountain.
And in the last light of dusk, they were not unlike a million tiny meteorites.
All done with being cosmic, and bound for the everyday ground.
The old woman said, "Your species, mine once, too."
"We must be the only creatures allergic to happiness."
"We ruled the galaxy, a long time ago, and still quibbled over who got more ice cream for dessert.
Still wanted to pretend we didn't come from the mud,
Still couldn't accept that meaning and solace aren't to be found in the heavens,
but in the trenches of everyday living.
"We'll know everything, and then, we'll be okay.
We'll kill everything, and then, we'll be okay.
We'll forget everything, and then, we'll be okay.
We'll live forever, and then, we'll be okay.
We'll cling to everyone, and then, we'll be okay.
And even then, we weren't okay.
Because that's not how the game works."
"Go home, Tao. Don't try to be a hero, or a sage, or a warrior.
"Just exist for a while and be decent. That's heroism enough.
That's how it's always been done."
"Hey, you wanna keep the glasses, and sword, and tankard, and armour? You can rule the world, if you like.
"No," Tao said.
"Good choice."
Tao said, "Am I the first from the village, to come up after the snake?"
"Boy," the old woman said, "Everyone from the village came up. One by one."
"I gave them all the same treatment, they all went back down. Even your father."
"God, he asked a lot of stupid metaphysical questions, I can see where you get it.
"You're the last one to come up here."
"So go home, be human.
The universe doesn't give a shit about you.
Your village, your family, me; we do.
"Remember your dad. Love him always. God knows he loved you.
And come up here any time you like, and we'll hang out, and remember him,
Tao took off the glasses, and the armour, and the tankard, and laid the sword down on the ground.
"Can I keep the necklace?", he said.
"Of course," she said.
"And the memories, they will always be yours too."
The curtain of ashes was gone now.
The sky was clear and fine.
He set off, back down the last mountain, bound for the last village.
It would not be a difficult walk.
And even if it were, he thought, he would not mind so much, now.
It would give him time to remember.