Countless millions of voices chanted a song in unison, their collective din so powerful that it transformed the words beyond clear diction while emphasizing their meaning to a spiritual level. Whatever they were saying, it was something so compelling and galvanizing that the listeners could only move to obey in a mindless trance, barely aware of their actions.
That chant, that endless, repetitive drone, was the first thing he became aware of as he awoke. Heavy eyelids, weak from hunger and blinded by the sun's light, refused to open more than a crack at first. The chant surrounded him, hypnotized his mind out of rational thought and weighed down on his weary body like a magic force.
Finally enough strength came to his limbs that he could feel them moving beneath his sprawled form. Though still echoing onward, he noticed the chanting had faded, its volume diminishing along with its influence. Blinking against the glaring light of day, he slowly took in his surroundings.
Beneath his feet and all around him, stretching out in every direction, familiar forms carpeted the ground. He was slow to recognize the shapes, addled by the incessant chanting, which still echoed on, at great distance, or perhaps trapped in an endless loop within his own mind. Squinting, poking and prodding at the shapes under his own shadow, he struggled to remember what these things were.
As memory returned, his poking ceased. His eyes widened slowly as he stood up as tall as possible, wishing to pull away from everything around him. He was standing atop a pile of bodies—the bodies of his own people. They were everywhere. They were piled up in mounds and strewn across the earth in a thick, endless spread. Long, thin limbs stuck out at awkward angles. Unblinking eyes baked in the suns' light. Mouths hung open or formed flat, expressionless lines.
Hot, sweaty panic spiked and broke into an icy, shivering dread. There was no place to put his feet without stepping on another body, no bare patch of earth, not a single blade of grass. Twisting and turning every-which-way, he saw the only objects that broke the field of the dead—the towers, soaring up into the sky. All hazy weakness forgotten, his mind, now shocked to a desperate sharp point, began to recall things.
The tower closest to him triggered a memory. He had been there this last weekend. They all had been there. Alive and well, celebrating a massive gala of debauchery. The cool air of the night and light of the moon had given him a sense of excitement and purpose. During the day he laughed and bounced from one group of friends and friendly strangers to another. He made love until he was spent and gorged himself until he was stuffed. He had felt alive as if for the very first time. They all had. Chatting, dancing, jumping and singing, they cavorted in a display of joy and love that he had hoped would never end.
What had become of all that good cheer? What terrible tragedy had reduced so many happy revelers to this lot of corpses? With no living thing in sight to ask, the lone survivor felt his only hope was to seek out answers at the tower. Gruesome though the thought of walking across countless bodies was, he could not bear to stand in the midst of death forever. While taking pains to avoid looking down at the faces of those he tread upon, the loner trudged hurriedly toward his destination, choking back sobs of sorrow and disgust at every step.
Reaching the base of the tower, he did not hesitate to begin climbing, grabbing at any crack or ledge for a handhold or place to step. Eagerly did he pull himself up and away from the sea of bodies. Searching along the width of the tower, he found nothing to answer his one burning question. Nothing but cracked, uneven wall. So higher he climbed.
The towers' steep side was no easy hike. At times the survivor had to pause for a rest. He woke tired and still felt entirely weak in both body and mind. At times he wondered if it was all just a terrible nightmare. What unholy twist of luck could have left him alive while so many countless others lay dead?
Scanning all around the tower, higher and higher, he saw nothing. No note left behind, no living person of his ilk to speak to. No sign of life whatsoever. Looking down, he saw the vast expanse of the dead stretching out from below him, individual bodies like little grains of sand. The height was terrific, but still he could not turn back; there was nothing down there for him.
After hours of climbing, wrestling with his own exhausted body and the grief and frustration that wracked his mind, the survivor began to crack. Pausing for rest, he sobbed and beat against the tower's side, lost in his despair. He did not hear the approach of another creature, but through his tears he saw the gigantic shadow cross over him.
Looking up he gaped at the enormous monster that stood above him. Long, ugly claws wrapped across the tower's rounded side, using immeasurable strength to hold up the fat, long body of the beast. Above a torso covered in some alien coating, a hideous, pointed head cocked to one side as it considered the survivor beneath it.
“Well well, look at you! I had just about given up on all your kind. Most of the others died out hours ago,” a booming voice, both high-pitched, yet thunderous to the diminutive loner's ears spoke in casual familiarity.
Though horrifying to behold, this foreign giant was the only living thing the survivor had seen since his past weekend of celebration. Blowing through his own shock and fear, he stammered out the agonizing question he wanted answered so badly.
"W-w-what h-happened? W-why are th-they all d-dead?” he trembled in the shadow of the creature as it loomed over him, studying him with carefree curiosity.
“What happened? Well, you all came here, you mated, and you died. It's all quite natural. Why, you ask? Circle of life, I suppose.” the monster answered happily.
Struck by the short, insensitive answer, the loner felt anger overtake his terror. The countless millions, once laughing, loving and singing, now lay dead. This beast had no sympathy, no interest, not even respect. It was all the spark needed to set aflame the bedraggled soul of the mourning survivor.
“Circle of life!? What kind of ridiculous life is that? We are born into this world to know joy and excitement, make merry and find love, and in an instant it all ends? We're all struck down without warning, without reason or explanation? What cruel god or godless world would orchestrate such a life?”
At this the giant balked. Its giant head reared back in surprise, then cocked to the side again in thought. Beady eyes scanned the sky and the carpet of dead bodies below before looking back to the tiny little thing hanging onto the tower's side in its shadow. The loner panted, furious, glaring up at the large animal, vehemently willing it to answer.
“Well...” the monster said thoughtfully, “There's no telling why some lives are longer than others, why some live and others die. That's just the way of the world. And as for who—or what—created all this...” The great beast paused, thinking. The loner blinked, some of his anger forgotten, intently waiting for enlightenment. The bigger creature suddenly shrugged, “How should I know? I'm just a bird.”
With just a moment for the cicada to hang his head in abject disappointment, the cardinal lunged down and plucked up the insect and ate it in a blink of its beady eyes before flying off.