We stride through the rest of the small camp, encountering the rest of the people of Conlis. They stare warily as we pass, and I look all around taking everything in. More children run around with some sort of game involving sticks with string attached. A young couple runs off into the forest, thinking that no one noticed. Elderly men and women sit out in rocking chairs, mumbling amongst each other. I’m in the middle of all, all of this life, and I take it all in.
I bound up next to Finn, practically jumping up and down. “So, these are the indigenous people, the…”
“Conlites,” He says softly, “yeah, this is them.”
I match his pace and tone, and I continue softer, “So did they build the thing on the mountain?”
He halts and looks at me weird, as is his habit. “Yeah, yeah they did.”
We halt in front of a tent, and I smile in celebration. Finally, I impressed him.
As we duck into the tent, I get a whiff of something like incense. Candles are everywhere inside, all around the dirt ground and wooden boxes. A woman sits in the center, facing the opposite direction of the entrance. Where she’s facing, on the back of the tent, is a rock with a painting of some kind on it. It looks way old, like some ancient tome or something. In the light of the candles, the flickering room looks like an ancient ritual. But something occurs to me.
“How hasn’t everything caught on fire, with the candles? I mean it’s all wood and canvas and….” I trail off, realizing how loud my words were bouncing around the room.
Finn gives me a look. I give him an apologetic one back.
The woman stands slowly and turns around, making eye contact with me.
She’s taller than I expected, long ivory hair reaching to her waist. She wears a long, simple robe, with a locket around her neck that catches my eye. It’s out of place, unlike anything I’ve seen here yet; it almost looks….
My thoughts trail off as she keeps staring at me, violet eyes digging into my soul. Her sharp facial features are accented by the candlelight, and she holds a dead flower. Before I can speak, which is probably a good thing, Finn steps forward.
“Aila. You called.”
The woman sharply changes her gaze to Finn, and her face softens.
“Ah, yes, Finn. Thank you for coming.” Her voice is softer and heavier than I expected.
He steps up to her and bends over to let her lay her empty palm softly on his forehead. Some sort of traditional greeting I assume because he straightens a second later, and she nods respectfully.
“We have….a problem.” She continues, ignoring my existence entirely.
“So you said.” Finn says inquisitively. He glances at the dead flower she holds, then quickly at me at his right. There’s an expectation in his eyes, challenging me to keep watching.
“I was walking on the old trail up Ara at dawn as is the custom,” her voice grows softer, “and I picked this out of the ground.”
Staring intently at Finn, she lifts the dead flower up to eye-level between them.
He takes the shriveled, brown plant from her and delicately studies it for a second.
“And?” He asks, unimpressed.
I suppress a snort as Aila begins to pace around the tiny room. I wait for someone to say something, growing more uncomfortable by the second.
“And then I saw it.”
Finn and I share a look.
“There is an ancient temple on Ara, where I travel every dawn as every leader of our culture has since time began. To be honest, I normally just enter the sacred building for a few minutes and then descend, but today, I saw it. The creature that leaves desolation in its wake, literally and metaphorically.”
Finn hands the dead flower to me absentmindedly, and the delicate thing begins to crumble at my touch. ‘Desolation in its wake.’ Did she mean like this flower?
Aila faces away from us, and Finn steps forward to lay a hand on her shoulder. She turns around abruptly, her face full of terror.
“It was an Occasus!” She gasps.
Finn stiffens, and I realize that this can’t be good. He doesn’t move; I can almost see the steam coming out of his ears from how hard he’s thinking.
Then, he turns and walks briskly past me to the door, whispering for me to follow.
We walk out into the sunny day, and Finn makes a beeline for a little alcove directly at the base of the mountain. An old wooden post stands there, with a sign too faded to read pointing up the mountain.
“Wait!” Aila trails behind us, and once she catches up she continues. “I am accompanying you.”
“No.” Finn says, not even entertaining the notion. “Let’s go, Elizabeth.”
He starts on the trail, not looking again at either of us. Starting to follow him, I turn around and offer Aila an apologetic shrug, and then I bound up to close the gap between Finn and I.
Finally catching up, I walk in step with Finn silently for a few seconds. Geez, this man could out-silence a brick wall.
“So….this….‘Occasus’ thing?” I say in between the crunch of our footsteps. “Like…what’s that about?”
Finn sighs. “It’s a problem, that’s what it is.”
Gradually our steps grow slower as we begin our climb of the mountain Ara. The path seems to wind its way up the mountain, a constant curve to the right. The vibrant brush seems to continue upward, the nature relentless against the altitude. Hardly a distinct path, we trek on with the slope as our only guide.
After a while, Finn finally begins to explain.
“The Occasus are just what Aila said: creatures that simply devastate. They are huge, impenetrable things; you won’t be able to miss it. Their only purpose is to devour. They physically eat anything–living, dead, animals, plants, you name it–but how they really get you is their curious ability to simply drain life from their surroundings.”
“Like that flower? Oh! The bugs, too! Right?” I interject.
“So, where’d it come from?” I’m suddenly a lot more aware of my surroundings, glancing around cautiously.
“Yeah, another weird thing, they don’t ‘come’ from anywhere.” Finn fidgets with his sword handle. “They’re caused, or made. Usually by someone with a specific target. The real question is: why here? I mean, Conlis is literally the most neutral dimension. Nothing ever happening here.”
I feel something in my gut sink. “So that’s why you brought me along. Makes sense now.”
He didn’t think I was ready at all. He just thought when Aila called it would be nothing, absolutely nothing. I look down and keep walking, avoiding his gaze and trying to hide how embarrassed I am. I thought I was doing good, so good in fact that I could start traveling already. Guess I was wrong.
Eager to change the subject before he says anything, I ask, “So how do we kill this thing?”
“We don’t.” Finn clears his throat. “Well, more like we can’t.”
“I’m sorry, can’t?” I’m a little shocked.
“Yeah, can’t.” Finn concedes. “No one has actually ever killed an Occasus. I’ve fought a few in my time, four years ago, but it can’t be stopped.”
I open my mouth, then close it, then open it again. “So we’re going after this thing that’s literally unstoppable?”
“Yup.” The guy actually smiles a little.
We keep on, for some reason, and gradually the vibrant flora begins to decay. Finn halts occasionally to inspect a dead flower or two, and soon we’re walking solely on dirt and dust. After a while the road gets narrower. I look over the cliffside to my left, and my stomach drops when I see the camp many stories below. Breathing quickly, I back away slowly and run to catch up with Finn.
Evening begins to fall as we reach a fork in the road, the right veering the path off to the peak, and the left along the cliffside presumably to the temple. Hanging left, Finn motions for me to stay behind him, and we travel silently on. After a few minutes, the old wooden temple stands in front of us.
The sunset gives the temple a strange red tint. It seems to be in good condition, a large structure raised up from the ground. The entrance is open, with no door, and a few large, flat rocks lead up into the building. It looks out over the cliff, and when I glance out, I can see what I think is the hill with the Door. Finn leads the way cautiously up the rocks, slowly sliding his sword out of its sheath. I follow suit, feeling oddly at ease and comforted by the weight of my sword in my hand.
Finn pauses at the entrance, his right hand gently running over the outside wall. He motions for me to stay close. Then I see it. Four long, jagged scratches in the wood. I run my hand along the scratches, mimicking his movement. I shudder. Claw marks.
Our boots barely make a sound as we enter the temple. Three wooden walls to our left, right, and back let in slivers of the dying light outside. There are wooden pedestals here and there, each with a stone or a gem displayed. In front of us, the back wall of the temple is the entrance to a cave, and the wood floor suddenly transitions to brown dirt. The cave is a deep darkness; we can just barely make out the ancient paintings covering the walls. Finn reaches into his pack, pulling out a flashlight, so I do the same, and we follow our two beams of light into the cave.
Stepping into the darkness, I focus on the walls, attempting to decipher the paintings. Mainly black and red, a story unfolds to me of the ancient Conlis people and some old legend of a woman, the only figure drawn in violet. I study them as we go until Finn stops abruptly. He shines his flashlight forward, his body still, his eyes scanning furiously. I freeze when I take note of his posture, and time seems to slow down. I look into the darkness in front of us and, peering closer, I see the darkness move. Like, it actually shifts in the light, and I gasp unintentionally. The sound echoes about the cave, and Finn looks at me alarmed.
We don’t move for what feels like forever. Breathing becomes harder; my limbs grow heavy. My energy is being sucked right out of me, pulled out of me, like someone stuck a straw in me and everything is being sucked out. I start to blink rapidly, focusing only on keeping my legs standing, and my sword tip hits the ground. I’m leaning on my sword as a crutch when Finn races to my side in the next instant. All I can see is the darkness circling me, pulsating and drawing me in, and I’m falling to the ground. But instead my waist pulls me backward, my feet working on automatic and scrambling back.
Finn’s arm is around my waist, pulling me out the cave, and before we even reach the temple, my strength is coming back. I turn myself around, Finn’s arm now pushing me forward, and I can see the wooden structure. I glance behind for a second and get my first glimpse of the creature.
It’s giant, haunches scraping the top of the cave, and it has a cloud of deep green darkness buzzing around it like a cloud of flies. Beyond the seeping shadow, the thing is actually a light grey with bright, piercing white eyes that must have faded into a pale grey to blend into the dark cave. It has four legs almost like a giant wolf, but its face is flat and, like, 90% mouth. Four huge jagged teeth, each about as long as my arm, chomp and snap at our heels. The thing honestly is almost the cute kind of ugly, if it wasn’t so menacing and deadly and life-draining.
I scamper into the temple, Finn pushing me on, and run out into the evening air. I notice vaguely that the sun fell, but Conlis still has some sort of light blue glow. Finn and I keep running straight ahead until some innate survival instinct skids us to a stop right at the cliff’s edge. My eyes take in the campsite far below for a split second, and then Finn and I whirl around at the same second to face the Occasus.
The thing is stuck by the small entrance to the temple, so it begins to ram the wooden wall. It rumbles slightly, and I praise the Conlis people who built the temple for a brief second.
Finn and I take that second to assess our options, both looking wildly around for some sort of idea. I see the path to the right, leading to the peak, and I get an idea.
“Come on!” I shout, high on adrenaline and danger.
Finn looks mildly surprised that I lead the way, but he has no time to address it, for the next second we hear wood breaking and splintering.
Rocks tumble under our feet as we climb further, and we reach another flat clearing on the opposite side of the mountain. My legs pumping and my eyes searching, I find exactly what I’m looking for. A little outcropping in the cliff’s edge, reaching out in a point over the edge of the mountain.
I run straight for the cliff, and I hear a gasp from Finn. He gets it. Without even thinking, I put my hands down on the edge and swing my legs over the left side. I adjust myself, my hands hugging the cliff and legs hanging, until I’m right below the outcropping. Finn does the same on the other side, and we stay perfectly still, the left side of my body pressing tightly against Finn’s right.
We hear the giant footfalls of the Occasus reach the outcropping, and it stands for a few seconds, feet or paws or claws or whatever right above us. Finn and I watch, silently, as the thing seems to listen and sniff, unwilling to approach the edge. Then, my arms start to shake.
As the thing creeps up to the edge, it gets harder and harder for me to hold on, the strength ebbing away from my body once more. I draw closer to the cliff, scrambling with my feet and trying to find somewhere to put them. Then, I do that thing. That thing they say never to do. I look down.
To Be Finished in Cliff’s Edge: Part 3 Next Thursday!
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