We knew the story long before we young ones realised the place existed. A tale told by the old ones around the fires at night. They talked of the Old Times, and we thought they were just stories. Stories like the tales of the various long-ago gods fighting each other until they killed this world.
Those who were old when our old ones were young told them the same tales about the gods and their clashing armies.
Of course, we laughed. When you are young, it is hard to believe the old ones were once as young as you are. When you see them stumble between their huts and the fires and the way their hands shake as they reach for a cup, it is hard to believe that those men were young once. Hard to imagine those old women were young girls who ran off into the woods glancing back over their shoulders to see if the boys were following.
I watched Mina, across the campfire, as Jenk told the story of the metal birds the old gods used to rain fire down in their enemies. I tried to imagine Mina as old as Jenk. Mina saw me stare and lowered her eyes to the flames.
Little did we know then that one day we would stand here in the ruins of the old world. At the place where those old gods once slaughtered each other’s followers.
We had seen the light of a clearing through the trees. We stood on the edge of the empty ground, still scorched after so long. The old gods must have known of some great secret fire that burns everything, turning it to a dust where nothing ever grows.
It was a great circle of barren ground. I looked at Mina, and she looked at me. I put out a hesitant foot onto the bare ground. It was like fine sand at a river’s edge, almost like dust.
I took a step and looked back.
Mina was shaking.
Like me, she had heard all the stories about the devils and monsters that haunt these barren lands of the old gods. She knew too that such places were cursed and those who ventured into them would die of horrible diseases.
I pointed to a flock of crows perched on some stones that shone in the sunlight, all sitting together like the elders on a Judgement Day. They shuffled sideways and screamed at each other when they saw me watching them.
I turned. Mona was still standing where the grass faded and died at the edge of the barren circle. I held out my hand to her. She shook her head and took a step back.
I could feel this barren ground was warm, far warmer than it should be even in the warm summer sun.
I took another step.
I hesitated as the toe of my boot uncovered something under the dust. It was pale, hard and smooth. I kicked more of the sandy dust from it.
I jumped back, stifling a yell, as the empty eye sockets stared back at me. The crows on the stones laughed.
I turned and ran, grabbing Mina’s hand. We ran as fast as we could away from the scorched human skull half-buried in the barren sand.
Behind me, as I stumbled and ran, those crows still laughed.