PROLOGUE A cold wind blew through the clearing. Deep in the forest, the clearing sat as an anomaly in the sea of leafy green. Why did no trees grow there? Why would nothing grow on this small patch of land? Broad trunks of oak and elm grew all around, their ancient bark almost forming a boundary between the forest and this place. Curiously, stones dotted the clearing in a rough circle around a central stone. Though no human feet had ever trod this glade, the top of this central stone and all those surrounding it were worn smooth as by the touch of hands over thousands of years. No-one but the grey sky watched the clearing. Leaves blown by the gusting wind were the only inhabitants, but even they seemed to hasten to leave the open space as they were blown back between the trees. There was something about this place, something that held back the encroaching foliage. Something special. A squirrel scampered into the clearing. Even though it was very obviously empty, the creature tested the air before darting ahead in spurts of speed to make it’s way to one of the stones. Curiously, it chose a stone almost exactly fitting its size and sat. Not at ease, as it remained upright, tail erect and nose continuing it’s nervous twitching, but very obviously this was where it was planning to stay. Rustling dead leaves revealed a red fox entering the clearing from the opposite side. The squirrel tensed, but did not leave it’s perch. The fox trotted forwards, baring it’s teeth in a snarl which set a tremor through the squirrels tail, but the fox did not attack. Swishing it’s own red and black tail, the fox settled itself on a larger stone, sitting upright with eyes fixed towards the center of the clearing and with it’s tail curled around it. The two animals regarded each other and the surroundings in equal measure, the silence unbroken save by the wind gusting again through the trees. And then there were more. A badger, woodchuck and mole. Boar, panther and hawk. Animals arriving from above and below, breaking the surface of the ground, swooping from the sky or leaping lightly from branches. Despite the obvious settings of predator and prey, no violence ensued. Each animal kept on a straight path, crossing each other in the clearing as they each approached a stone sized exactly for them. Within minutes every stone had an animal perched atop of it, bar the central stone and the largest to the side. Each animal sat silently. And soon again the only sound in the clearing was the gusting wind and the rustling of the leaves as they continued to dance in and out of the clearing. It was as if they felt the tension, which despite the silence continued to build. Eyes flickering to the sides, animals watching all the others as if a tenuous alliance was trying to be reforged from the shards of betrayal. A soft call from the fox broke the silence, the creature itself looking at the squirrel across from him while his muzzle drew back at one side revealing his long canines. The squirrel broke immediately into angry chittering, moving to the edge of his stone and brandishing his tiny fists at the fox. Chittering echoes sounded through the sea of trees behind him, the level of sounds indicating hundreds of squirrels hiding in the branches. The fox let out a low growl as behind him gleaming eyes glistened between the trees. Suddenly pandemonium erupted. Animals screeched and roared, singly and in groups they pointed paws and talons at one another. Eyes locked between various pairs as the sounds of anger rolled through the clearing. A rumbling growl, felt rather than heard, silenced the cacophony. All eyes went to the figure emerging from the trees. Standing up on it’s hind legs, a massive black bear reared up to tower over them. The rumbling continued culminating in a loud snarl that bared teeth. The clearing fell back to silence. The bear humphed and moved to the side, bowing it’s head down as another creature entered the space. A glossy black Raven walked slowly into the clearing. All of the animals bowed their heads as the bird’s gaze swept across them. Some slowly, some begrudgingly, but all bowed. The bird slowly walked over to the center stone, shadowed by the hulking bear. Strangely, It’s feathers were streaked with white as if it were an ancient human. But it’s eyes... it’s eyes were bright and beady, lit with a deep intelligence. With a short flap of it’s wings, it flew to the flat top of the central stone. The silence still filled the clearing and strangely, even though the crow was to be the apparent center of attention, none of the other animals met it’s eyes as it slowly surveyed them all. The Raven spoke, soft caws building in volume as it looked around. Where it’s gaze fell upon one of the animals, they fidgeted like a child caught in wrongdoing. As the volume built, so the nervousness of the other animals increased. Suddenly, the Raven’s calls were at full volume, echo’ing through the space and echo’ed above by other Ravens slowly circling in the air. Silence fell again. Each animal looked at the ground, chastised by whatever meaning the birds calls had for them. The Raven gestured with a wing and the bear turned it’s head to grunt at the edge of the trees. Two other bears entered the clearing, obviously nervous despite their large size. They dragged a vaguely humanoid shape between them as they passed the ring of stones and deposited the body near the foot of the central stone. As the pair of bears left the clearing, the Raven gestured again and the bear that had followed him in reached down and held up the body, rotating so that all of the animals could see it. The body was large, larger than any normal human and larger than any natural development could account for. This was the only oddity until the bear pulled back the head that was lolling forwards . HIsses, grunts and nervous chitters erupted from the surrounding creatures. The face was surrounded by a skin-like hood, ribbed on the insides. Long, thin teeth jutted from its mouth. A bald head with no nose, only slits. All were strange, but the eyes... the eyes were by far the oddest. Fully yellow, with an upright slit it completed the visage. Of a snake somehow melded into a man. The Raven fluttered to the shoulder of the bear. Crowing loudly, the bird gestured to the body and spread it’s wings out to indicate them all. Silence fell again. Not one of the assembled creatures met the bird’s eyes. The silence thickened. The Raven looked down on the creatures, seemingly content to let the pressure build. Some of the creatures moved as if they would look up to meet the gaze of the Raven but each time the motion was incomplete. The fox dropped to the floor and turned towards the forest. The Raven fluttered back to the central stone and let out a loud call, staring at it’s back. The fox paused, turning its head slightly back towards the Raven. It’s entire posture seemed dejected, defeated. Without meeting the eye of the Raven it let out a low whine and turned back again towards the forest, vanishing into the depths. Silence fell again in the clearing, but only briefly. As if the fox had given them leave, each of the animals started to climb down from their perches slowly and head towards the forest. Half-turned heads yelped, whined and snorted softly. Each sound soft and pitiful. Then there was just the Raven and the bear. And the strange snake-melded human. The Raven stood, still staring at the part of the forest where the fox had disappeared. The bear snuffled loudly and slowly ambled towards the center stone. Reaching the central stone, he hunched down to get the level of the Raven. It’s huge paw lightly patted the back of the Raven. The bird’s gaze unfixed and it shook itself. Looking down at the monstrosity that they had both ushered into the clearing, it fell quiet again. The bear sat and waited. The Raven’s glossy feathers shivered and it let out a low cry. The small, almost despairing sound seemed to echo in the clearing now destitute of life. Somehow, the sound perfectly conveyed a sense of deep loss, as if a last hope had been snuffed out like a final candle against the oncoming night. The Raven fluttered to the shoulder of the bear and together they left, returning the clearing to the deathly quiet that had held before. The humanoid figure still lay on the ground, it’s presence somehow appropriate in this living mausoleum of hope and dreams.