A sharp crack shattered the strained silence, echoing though the mid-morning fog. Other noises followed, but they were quieter—more apprehensive. A boot scraped the dirt. Hands tightened on the hafts of spears, and armor clanked as the soldiers shifted from foot to foot.
Twenty strong they stood, sweaty even in the biting cold, surrounded by silence. To their rear, the town was deserted. Open doors revealed cold hearths, and the streets were strewn with belongings dropped during the fleeing. That had been days ago, and the still air smelled of rotting food.
Twenty strong they stood, the only ones who stayed. Twenty out of ten thousand, they stood at the end of the valley, facing the end of the world. For before them stood the Last Wall, a god-built monolith of black marble that rose to the heavens and stretched from mountain to mountain. And it was breaking. Through the fog, the soldiers could see a web of glowing red cracks snaking across the wall—fissures large enough for two men to enter standing abreast. Before their bleary eyes, another crack appeared like crimson lightning. Its thunder shook the valley.
The face of the wall mas now more red than black, so covered with cracks as it was. Midmorning was made to look like midday by the angry glow. Another crack shook the valley, and the soldiers stood like ants before a mountain, alone at the End of All Things.
Help had never come, not that the soldiers could blame anyone. Who wanted to face Death, certain it was coming, but uncertain of its form? Everyone had heard the stories of what lay beyond the wall. In that unknown hellscape the skies rained flame, and monsters roamed. Some said they were beings of fire, with ever changing forms that could not be harmed. Others were said to be armored in black chitin, with razor claws and suns for eyes. Others still were nothing but shadows that stole life in silence. Whatever lay Beyond, the soldiers meant to fight them.
A final crack sounded, louder and more violent than all the rest. Sensing the end, the soldiers stepped forward and lowered their spears, glad to finally be moving. At long last, Death was coming.
The cracks began to pulse, and there was a sound like an underwater explosion. The wall didn’t fall, but seemed to dissolve into the crimson light, which grew more intense and began to rush towards the soldiers. In the End, there were no monsters, only a cleansing fire that flooded the valley. There was no fighting Death.