Humanity was losing its humanity. He watched them from atop his perch in the mountains.
He had heard the calls. There were always calls, but the volume had been increasing slowly over the decades until it was enough to draw him out of the other dimensions.
It wasn't the first time he was here. He would be drawn to this world at least once a century, and they had successfully called him again.
He surveyed their world from his vantage point. He hadn't misheard. They needed his services once again. But it wasn't going to be pleasant for them. It never was. That's why so many of them still held on to the old ways with all their power, even as they saw the world crumbling around them.
Nero pulled out his fiddle and played a cheerful tune. It wasn't his problem. Truth be told, it wasn't anyone's problem. And it was also everyone's problem.
They spent far too much time trying to assign blame rather than dealing with the calamities before them, but such was the nature of their cycle. Just before the end, they would all be too busy trying to avoid the finger of blame to do anything else. Nobody wanted to be held responsible for what they could all see on the horizon.
He was there to witness them again. Their technology changed. The specifics of their beliefs changed. But there were certain things about their civilizations that never changed.
Every culture came to an end sooner or later. Often in the most spectacular and terrible ways. It was unfortunate that he was only called back on the eves of their civilizations. Very few called him at their heights and their peaks. They were too busy enjoying themselves then. It was only in their valleys that they would beseech him to wash away their woes in a fresh deluge.
In many ways, they were already doing that to themselves.
Was he merely a witness to their own actions or was he a servant to their deepest frustrations? He used to be more sure of his answer, but the centuries had brought him new perspectives on this world and of others.
Who was he to say he was above them all? Who was he to say he wasn't just another part of the system that pushed their societies through continual growth, death, and rebirth? A servant has no agency, and he certainly didn't see himself as their master. He only came when he felt needed.
This morning, he was only as large as a man, but he was not as limited in form as his charges. He could grow as large as the entire planet, take in all their thoughts as they passed through him. He knew what they were thinking as one mind, even if none of them individually could wrap their thoughts around something so complex. He felt their moods as one, and at the twilight of each civilization, it usually turned his wings black, and his eyes black as well, deep as the emptiness of space from which all warmth had burned away.
They were attacking one another now. Everyone wanted the last scraps of their tired civilizations to themselves. Did he instigate their wars? He didn't like to think so. By the time he arrived, they were usually in progress. Did he make them worse? That's where he began to second-guess himself.
If they were bent on self-destruction, what was his role as their servant? What was his role as the embodiment of their collective thought? Maybe he shouldn't have come back this time. What would happen if he hadn't? Each time he returned in the past, the phoenix would burn itself into ash and rise again anew.
He used to think that was a good thing. He used to think that was his gift to them. But there was never any lasting change. At most a few generations could avoid the fire, but it would inevitably come again. Did he want to sit this one out? What if he refused to participate this time?
He wasn't in a rush. He had an eternity after all. He returned to the mountaintop for a period of contemplation, even as they began setting their own fires. The months passed into the next season as he reviewed every action he ever took in this world, from the first moment he was assigned to this post.
What would have been different if he had done things differently all those millennia ago? Would the cumulative effects have made any difference at all? As the cold came in, he thought he might try something different this time. Maybe I'll skip this cycle for the first time in my post. Maybe I won't even be a witness.
As he made his decision, his presence faded from this dimension, into another, until it was gone. Elsewhere, on a different mountaintop, someone else was watching humanity from atop her own perch.
She had heard the calls.