Beneath the ashen skies of a soon-to-be dead planet, stood a mountain, a stark form against the flatness of the wasteland surrounding it. Upon the mountain was an old man, sitting on a sun-bleached rock, watching the dust clouds dance amidst the stones. For the first time in what seemed like forever, the old man felt no need to go anywhere, no compulsion driving him to plague the innocent with his presence, no deathly Brothers destroying everything in his path. It was a small comfort, since there were no innocent left to plague. No guilty either. Nothing at all.
After some time, though judging exactly how much was impossible and indeed pointless, the old man spotted a figure beginning to climb the solitary mountain with some difficulty. As it finally ascended to the top to collapse in front of the old man’s rock, he saw it was another man. One of his arms was gone at the shoulder, as were his teeth, his hair, and most of his toes. Slowly, the broken man climbed to his feet and sat on a second rock, facing the silent elder. After a few false starts ending in fits of coughing, he said:
“So, it was you then. I assumed as much.”
“You know, some of us cynics had a wager on which one of you Keters would end up doing us all in. Most of them bet on that stupid lizard, but I knew he didn’t have it in him. Man, you should have seen the looks on their faces.”
“I suppose you always knew it was going to be me?”
“Nah, my money was on the girl. I don’t think anyone imagined it would be you, how could we? We thought you were a stable anomaly, if a dangerous one. Never figured you'd be the one to so royally screw us over. What the hell happened?”
“Why do you care? It’s not like it matters anymore.”
The broken man considered this for a moment, absent mindedly pulling on something hanging on a chain around his neck. “I guess asking questions is a hard habit to lose. Like living, in my case. So, let me repeat that: what the hell happened?”
“The rules changed.”
“That much I figured. Your anomaly used to take some time to manifest. How did it become instantaneous? Why?”
“I do not know why the Brothers decided to end mankind, or why they chose me as their instrument, other than to torment me. I never thought they would go this far to do so. As much as they hated me, their duty to the cycle of life and death was always more important to them. And yet, here we are.”
“If you can’t give me a why, how about a how?”
“It is tragically simple, really. Throughout the eternity of my search for the Third Brother, the First and Second only came to haunt me when I stayed around humanity for too long. They did that to isolate me, to make me hurt, to spite me. Coming and going, and always mocking me as they took someone away because of my folly, never allowing me to stay in one place. Until that day.”
The old man turned his gaze to the horizon, though the smoke made it difficult to see very far.
“That day, they came and never left. They didn’t mock me, or taunt me, or say anything at all. No mention of my failures in the past, or the ones still to come. No, they simply pushed me towards a specific location, with a force I couldn't hope to resist, like a moth before a maelstrom. A bunker, built into the side of this mountain.”
“Armed Sector-25. No one was supposed to know about it. Hell, I wasn't supposed to know about it.”
“I didn’t. The Brothers did. I saw them… doing things to the guards and the facility as they lead me in. I’m not quite sure how to describe it. Destroy is too weak a word. I have seen them commit countless atrocities throughout the years, but never with such purpose and efficiency, and yet with so little appetite for their work. When they were done, and I reached the bunker's inner chamber, I saw why they lead me here.”
“Armed Sector-25 held thirty-three percent of the Foundation’s nuclear devices in the northern hemisphere. Damn.”
The old man nodded. “And the warheads needed to carry them.”
Following the old man’s example, the broken tried to look around as well, but his eyes were too weak to see much of anything. He shivered, and the old man removed his tattered coat and handed it to him, looking at him thoughtfully as he covered his gaunt frame.
“How did you survive? As far as I know, you are the only one.”
Giving the elder a humorless, toothless grin, the broken man removed the ornate amulet from its place around his neck and dangled it from a four-fingered hand.
“Let’s just say you’re not the only immortal around. I can’t die as long as this thing is around, not really. Every time I do, someone else picks this thing up, and there I am again, like some jack-in-a box.”
“There isn't anyone left. Trust me on that.”
The broken man turned the amulet in his hand, and when he spoke next, there was a hint of fear in his voice.
“Not now, maybe. But someday, something will find it again. It will never end. I just want it to end.”
Frowning, the old man looked to his own possessions, to the small sack still hanging around his belt.
“This sack was supposed to save me, one day. I was supposed to use it to catch the Third Brother and gain my freedom. One last use, and no more.”
Gently, he took the amulet from shaking hand of the broken man, opened his sack, and tossed it inside. The sack’s rope tightened around it, with a sense of finality. The old man knew it would never open again.
“What use is freedom now?”
It was silent, for a while. The broken man fell asleep, his breath shallow in his ravaged chest. After a while, the breathing stopped, and the old man was alone.
Until someone laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, and a cold voice in his head.
It is time to go.
“So you finally come, Third Brother, All-Death. I have searched for you for so long, and you come when I have nothing left to give you. The gifts are all gone.”
They are of no importance. It is done.
“Of no importance!? You have tormented me for eons because I dared win them from you, destroyed the lives of countless others in your grudge against me, and now you have betrayed your duty and purged all life from this planet just to do so again! How dare you tell me they are of no importance!
You fail to understand our purpose. We did not gather your kind into the silent halls to spite you. We did it to save you. All of you.
At that, the old man began to weep, tears falling on the barren rock at his feet.
“What is left to save? Everything is gone. You killed them all.”
A physical death. The physical form is a temporary, fleeting notion. Other things endure. In the silent halls, they will be safe from what is to come.
“What kind of safety is death? What could be worse?”
Strangely enough, there was a hint of kindness in the voice when it next spoke.
Life could be. Come, and be comforted. Our grudge is finally done.
The hand left the old man’s shoulder, and was now extended towards him. He took it.
You are the last of the deathless. The rest have been taken already. It is time for you all to finally rest.
Sometime later, a small silvery object fell from the sky, and dug itself into the ground. It examined it and the air, and determined that, despite the elevated levels of radiation and the regrettable lack of sapient life, this planet was still perfectly suitable for experimentation. It sent a signal.
And in the ashen sky was now a hint of metal.