“That can’t be right.”
Rasmus and Kaia stared up at the straight stretch. The mountain’s side sloped down like a rocky wall, the top of it hidden from their position on the path.
The boy looked at the map, his thin mouth twisting smaller. He glanced back at the dirt road.
“No. It is. I guess it’s up there.”
Kaia blew out her lips. “I knew this was too easy.” She pushed up her oversized, gray sleeves. “Let’s do this.”
Rasmus turned and headed off down the trail. His sister frowned after him. Raising her chin, she shouted, “Where are you going?”
He turned back, blinking. “Around.”
“Around the whole mountain?”
“I’m not walking around the whole mountain.”
Their trek had been mostly pleasant, the long countryside road probably no more than half a day from the nearest village. Flowers and lush plant-life lined the trail, a couple of full trees along the way. It had been warm, but with a cool breeze wafting in now and then, Kaia had complained as much as she usually did in summer travels, but she was reaching.
Rasmus chuckled incredulously, holding out his hand. “What? You want to climb it?”
“You are going to make this take forever!”
“You are going to make this be ridiculously hard!”
She gestured sternly. “The quickest route between two points is straight.”
“You’ll spend most of your time slipping down it.”
“Not if you’re remotely capable.”
He grinned, starting off. “I am not remotely capable. And I prefer the easy way, thank you. We have all the time in the world.”
She scowled, arms at her side, as he strode down the curving path. Her eyes flicked to the mountain and back before she shouted, “I’ll race you!”
Rasmus shot her a look, grinning. Kaia held up her thumbs. She bolted. He kept walking.
When she hit the bottom, she quickly fumbled for handholds, but the few out-jutting rocks came off freely in her grip. She tried again. Grabbed one rock and slipped. Grabbed another, screamed. She threw herself up onto the wall. She skidded back down. She kicked a large rock. She screamed in a very different way.
When the priests had asked them to go to their abandoned temple to fetch some damn artifact, Kaia had thought it would be suspiciously simple or shockingly terrifying. The monks were quick to haggle—they wouldn’t take no for an answer. Rasmus was eager, but Kaia was waiting until she saw the final product—the temple itself—before she felt this wasn’t a waste of her time.
The money would provide a bed for a few nights, so she couldn’t be too upset.
She skidded back down to the ground.
Kaia stared up at the rocks, thinking hard, before considering defeat. The feeling only lasted for an instant before she immediately shook it off and lunged again. Her hands dug into the rock and she began the arduous climb.
At first she assumed it would be just a pain for a little ways, that she would come up to a ridge, and then it would plateau out. So far no luck. But she scampered upward, sheer force of will keeping her to the wall. It was only when she had managed to make a good distance that she suddenly became afraid of falling.
Her muscles tired quickly and threatened to relax despite her grip on the rock not being anywhere near secure. With a pounding in her heart, she briefly wondered about her mortality, even though if she fell it was more likely she’d just break something than actually die. Not at this distance.
Kaia sucked it up and flew up the side.
Like the shadow that once attempted to eat Rasmus’s soul, Kaia defied gravity, though she couldn’t be exactly sure as to how. Stubbornness was her superpower.
She didn’t think about the end. She didn’t think about the fall. She focused merely on the present, and when her hand found a locked purchase, victory flushed through her body in a warm pleasure. She pulled herself onto the sloped edge and collapsed, face first, into the rocky ground.
There was heavy breathing.
She looked up. The creature looked back. It was not happy.
“Please tell me you’re sentient,” she muttered.
“Sediment,” replied the rock monster.
Then he swung.
The bulbous arm looked like gray rot on a cursed hero as it flew at her. Kaia managed to roll before the stone-like fist hit. Her back skidded along the slope, but her boots managed to catch and she was on her feet before the thing could strike again.
The rock creature turned itself about. Kaia pulled herself up against the mountain side. Both watched each other.
About the height of a man and a half, its bald, lumpy head glistening like wet stones in the sunlight, the creature’s entire form shuddered while redrawing the long arm from the ground. Its face carried a long snout, a rusty brown with hundreds of tiny pebbles sliding like scales. The beady eyes were almost invisible against the ridge in its forehead. It was naked with full disgusting anatomy dragging beneath it.
“You are trespassing, rodent,” it said, its voice loud and gravelly.
Kaia gaped for words, giving a quick glance up the mountain side. “I did not know that there was anything living up here. Right here. On this random spot by a precarious ledge. I would have assumed the trail was much more inhabited,” she said. “Honestly.”
Where they stood was hardly even a ledge with the mountain’s steepness starting again immediately to her left, the flat, leveled out space before her carrying only a little grass, but otherwise being as rocky as anywhere else. Though there were rolling mounds, as expected of a hill, just a little past the rock monster, and Kaia was able to see, off in the distance, through a couple of trees that popped up closer to the ground-level, the path her brother had taken. Idiot may have been right. Although maybe the rock monster wouldn’t have been as much of a problem for him. Rasmus wouldn’t have forced his brother to carry his pack, and he wouldn’t have had his only weapon in it.
To be fair, Kaia usually ran in these sorts of circumstances. She would right then if it was an option.
“I’ll just continue on my way…”
She knew the thing had arms like an ape, but didn’t expect its reach to make it to her. The monster grasped her by the collar, jerking her back with her loud, “Gahk.”
“You will not. This is my spot. You will go around. You go back down.”
“Alright,” she agreed, digging her feet in when he attempted to shove her off. “Deal. I’ll go back down. Just let me get my grip—”
“You, human, came into my territory. You fly back down.”
It chucked her.
Kaia felt herself lift off the ground, her stomach swinging without her. She grasped ahold of the beast’s fist. Her body stopped midflight; Kaia caught herself around the thing’s hand.
It roared in disgust. “Get off! Filthy thing.”
Twisting her legs around the arm, skirt tangled, the rock sharp against her exposed thighs, she clung for dear life. It shook and flicked before grabbing her by the head with his free hand and trying to pry her off. Through gritted teeth and watering eyes, her skin crying as the monster scrapped its hard exterior on her cheek, she glanced down to its goat-like feet, black stone hooves digging hard into the mountain side.
There was no way she could out maneuver something created to dance on this kind of land. Although…
A flash of memory came to her of an eagle knocking off a mountain goat from a hillside, her father laughing as it tumbled to its death.
When the beast gave one hard push, she let go. With the full weight of her body, she managed to swing around the creature’s torso and spin. Slow to react, the monster started to come after her. She twisted and shoved. Its feet slipped. So did hers.
They both went tumbling. The rock creature turned to boulders and stones and pebbles, spraying out in a fan as it showered the hillside. Kaia bounced twice, her shoulder slamming into the rock, hip torn to shreds by a sharp edge. Vision black, she caught herself. The roll stopped. Her shoulder screeched in pain, her arm yanked to full extension.
Kaia stayed paralyzed, breathing heavily. She stared down far below her where the rocks fell. They crumbled together in a nice little pile, rolling with an intense attraction. They started rebuilding themselves.
“I’ll get you, you little bitch!” the monster shouted.
She whipped herself onto her feet and sprinted up the mountain side.
Sometime later Kaia found herself on flat land. Grass grew on the hill side, and on a distant mound some trees stood against the blue sky. When she managed to stand steadily without fear of falling backwards, she took a deep breath and brushed back her hair. Kaia wiped the blood from her cheek and attempted to smooth out her ponytail, her shirt, the dirt off her knees. Inhaling deeply, she turned.
Rasmus stood before her, a long trickle of red pouring from the wound in his skull. His yellowing shirt sleeve had been torn off. Dirt covered his left side and he was mopped with sweat, his breath heavy and hard. They stared deeply into each other’s eyes.
“You were right,” they said.