“I will find out what you are.” “I owe it to Gwen...” “I will save her, and stop whatever you are!” As Olivier made his way through the crag, his words came back to haunt him, to stifle and slow him. Did he really say all of that? Why did he say it? He was nobody, after all. Yet, here he was, declaring war against... what, exactly?
His first thought was that it was a Dark One. He knew Cao’thugar from the tales of the Itchyomen, but They didn’t show even a touch of mercy when Astra cursed the Terrahn that “followed” Their teachings when they were cast to the sea, so why would They show him such a courtesy? No; if it was a Dark One, it would have swallowed him up as well as Gwen back there.
So what was it? He thought, again and again, muffled then quashed by the echoes, still bounding through his mind... It sounded brave, though, didn’t it?
He chuckled. He chuckled a good bit going through the crag, but not of mirth and warmth. Those meek chortlings were bitter, bitter and weak and lost in this expanse. He didn’t realize before how winding this chasm was, how many nooks and crannies it really had. He had been following Gwen, simply going with the motions, without considering his surroundings, and that had come back to haunt him as well.
Even more specters thrust themselves upon him as he squeezed his way through the rocks. Why did he think it was a good idea to try to open that chest to begin with? It was black as black could be. It made jet pale in comparison, almost white, and even Gwen, who had shown great expertise, couldn’t get it open, so why did he do it? It was shut for a reason, locked tight for a reason, carved out of the blacker than black stone for a reason... and he simply picked it up, carried it up, and dropped it. Not only that, it was behind a treasure room, hidden behind a fortress, in a musty little cave in a tiny alcove in the middle of nowhere. It had its reason for not being found, and he didn’t even consider any of it... why?
Oh, he knew why. He knew very well why, but that was but another shade that haunted him. He shivered, though it wasn’t cold in the crag. In fact, the sun had peaked over it, gleaming down through the cracks and through the halls he traversed, though he wished it didn’t. He wished he had been a little faster getting out of the cave; the dawn would have shown him the way, shining through the only path that made it to the plain. Instead, he was getting heated and gaining a chill all at once.
And to add to that heat.
Time and again he would be pulled back, all air squeezed out of him. His newly-acquired armament would get caught on a rock, sometimes a limb, which would drop briers down the back of his shirt. It only made his fit of giggles all the worse, his eyes filling with red and darkness and yellow as it seemed to visibly pulse on his newly colored arm. Surprisingly, he saw that it didn’t affect his leg at all, yet it had been grabbed as well. Small comfort; if only it wasn’t whisked away by another branch!
He tried to stand again but, instead, plopped down with a huff. He panted, looking at the path ahead, at the multiple openings that he must have seen a dozen times over by now.
There has to be a way, he thought, and heaved a heavy sigh... uttering another wry chuckle. After all, how can I be a hero if I can’t even make it out into the real world?
He sighed again, and picked up a pebble. His suckers slurped against the coarse, red stone, almost a perfect triangle. Each side bowed out, making it look like a plump, mini arrowhead. He gently lobbed it above his palm, catching it thrice before clenching and tossing it at one of the paths, clacking, echoing, booming and bounding all around. What started out as little more than a clack became like thunder, striking at him, before fading away.
Replaced by a soft growl.
Olivier hadn’t noticed it before, his heart and breath so heavy on his ears, already dulled by his own thoughts beating him down, but now that he could it was as clear as day. Yellow filled his eyes as he looked up, seeing a pair of ambers shining against the blue sky and red clay. They were in a thick, square feline face, the fur almost the same shade as the rock. It would have been completely invisible if it had climbed into the shadow of the crag, but, up there, he could see that it was easily the size of him, with thrice the bulk. Four tails swished behind it, each ending in frayed white hair, matching the fur growing from its curled ears, twitching as it watched, as it listened to him.
Olivier slowly stood, not breaking his gaze from the Leocarn, and it simply stared back. He took a step back, towards the forked paths, and it took a step after, silent, little more than a huff on the stone. No debris nor dust fell as it continued to follow him, matching step per step until it stopped, forced to by Olivier. He had hit a dead-end.
The wall and ground met in a curve; Olivier could have tried to run up it, attempted to climb, but that was before he knew the Leocarn was up there. The Leocarn was in front of him and above. He had nowhere to go. And it knew that.
Its growl seemed to deepen as it laid down above, its four tails swishing, watching him as he continued to stare at it, and Olivier once more felt like a rat on a ship, a mouse in a store. He remembered an old tom the baker back in Terra had. It was a large, gray cat, though it was more fur than bulk. That didn’t stop it from being a successful mouser... He once watched as the tom “hunted”, as he cornered the mouse and batted it back and forth until the poor thing simply couldn’t do anymore. And, even then, the cat wouldn’t offer it mercy. The tom ate it alive.
Was that going to happen to me? He thought, his yellowed vision slowly gaining a new color. Red. Was I going to be kept in this corner until I am too exhausted to fight back? Am I really going to die here.
He shook his head.
“No,” he croaked, jumping a bit from his own voice. The Leocarn’s tails twitched; its ears laid back, just as spooked at hearing his voice as he was. He spun to the wall, and he heard the Leocarn tense, its claws dig into the stone. He heard its back feet shuffle, scratching against, making sure it was on solid ground as he tried running up the small incline. It pounced as his foot connected with the wall.
And he leaped over it as it descended.
He winced, but rolled as he landed, sprinting towards the paths again, and he could hear claws scraping behind. He felt more than heard its growling breaths, its heated breath on yellowed teeth just inches away from his back. It stopped a moment, hearing the slight scratching again, and Olivier dove down the closest path. Just in time for the Leocarn to fly by.
His heart raced, following the path, but not for long. He wound his way into the crag, trying to keep his distance from those yowls and scrapes still rising behind. He reached another dead-end, another sloped rise. He tried this time to climb it, but had to fall once more as the Leocarn attempted to cut him off mid-flight. This time, he didn’t go unscathed; a long cut was left on his right leg, biting through the boot and into his skin with ease. Thankfully it was only superficial, but that didn’t take away the tremble down his spine, the chill that followed as blood trickled on his leg, wetting the inside of his shoe as he fled once more.
There has to be a way out, he thought, almost crying, scrambling into every path he could find. He both cursed yet was thankful that they simply rounded back instead of becoming other dead-ends; he didn’t think if he could survive another. Come on... Come on! I don’t want to die here!
The Leocarn, though, had other plans. Olivier made it back to the original path once more; he heard it behind, scratching on the stone. He started to dive down the path, but the beast caught him as he slowed. It had dug its toes in a touch harder than normal for a second, made him believe it was readying to pounce, and now was upon him.
Olivier cried out, cut off by a grunt as he was slammed into the wall, but the Leocarn did not relent. Its yowls were like a thousand shrieks reverberating and crashing against him, its claws daggers digging into his legs, tearing at his boots. Its tails hit the walls around hard enough to make them clack and billow dust. Olivier looked up a moment, seeing a branch, and didn’t even think as he pulled his sword free, jutting into it. Briars fell from it, fell upon them, and the Leocarn yelped as some fell on its face, around its eyes. It recoiled from Olivier, swatting at them, blind, for the moment. Olivier lurched to his feet and continued down the path he was on, bolting right as soon as he could.
Reaching another dead-end.
He gulped, finding it difficult. His throat was dry, his heart making it seem tighter than it really was. He dared not turn around, hearing it still scratching and yowling and growling, but it wasn’t close. Once more, the end had a running start to it; he looked up, and saw that there were plenty of stones to grab on. What better option, or moment, did he have?
He took a deep breath, exhaled, slowly, and ran at it. His feet were thumping far too loud for his liking, his suckers slurping at the stone like a typhoon on the senses, but he managed to make it to the top of the crag.
Where he had to let go.
The Leocarn swiped after him, stretched after as he fell halfway, catching one of the rocks. Blood speckled around the beast’s eyes, blinked away again and again, raining down upon him. It continued to try to stretch after, its claws getting ever closer, the air off them just grazing his shell.
Olivier looked down at the ground, seeing it was still a good bit away, and, even then, the path was long, the next opening too far to dive in.
I can’t go back, he thought, and looked up at the Leocarn, still so desparate, so ravenous. He had to dip his head to avoid its strokes, still stretching down, almost at its limits, and had a flash of inspiration. He reached into the back of his shirt, into the briars still prickling away there, and tossed them up.
The Leocarn caught them.
It yelped, the rock above clacking as it swayed, and it yowled as Olivier threw more up, onto that stone. Onto its paw. It let it go, and he saw as it scrambled at the rock wall, tried so hard to find hold. Not finding any. It lost its footing completely, and went tumbling down to the ground. It hit it with a hard thump; dust rose in its wake, but neither its tails nor chest nor even head stirred, silenced at last.
Olivier heaved another, weary sigh, and climbed up to the top of the crag. It was a series of sloping tops and open chasms, but he could at least see the way to the plains, and he had been heading in the wrong direction. His head ached, his heart hammered away in its cage, his feet begged to stop, but he was alive. Though he feared falling into a crag, he let his head lull back, looking up at the sky, relishing that he could see it, free from stone at last. It was dotted with clouds, puffy, innocent, white things here and there, lazing along across that expanse of blue, drifting their way behind the mountains at such a languid, lackadaisical pace. How he wished he could be those clouds now, to simply drift away on a sprawling, endless sea, far away from the reality that wanted to set itself in so much, but for the moment he enjoyed at least being among them.