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Chapter 41

Chapter 41: Tumble

I slide on my back like a human luge, accelerating down a slope steeper than any black diamond run. The speed of my plunge shocks me. The gauntlet of jagged ledges flying up will have the same result as those Cleavers when I strike them, only with more pain, more mess. I close my eyes, regretting my impulse to leap.

Something hard scrapes my shoulder. I should have hit the ledges by now. My rate of descent slows. The ground levels out. I tumble to a halt.

When I open my eyes I’m in the bottom of the bowl, with my dress torn and a hump of snow wedged up my back. Balls of decapitated mist roll across the gulf.

I stand up and shake out the snow. My backside is all scraped and raw. I feel nauseous. I wheeze and cough and something bubbles up out of my lungs. Grey goo, like liquid graphite, sieves through my teeth, past my lips and splats onto the snow. It seems almost sentient as it tries to slither away. Its surface bubbles and cracks and it withers to a crisp and the wind carries it away.

The walls of the cirque press in on me and make me dizzy. I stumble through the bowl in knee deep snow. My skin feels like fire ants are tunneling beneath it. Little bits of gray blob ooze through my pores and leave a trail in the snow. They trail down my limbs like drops of quicksilver. I leave a trail of them behind me, sizzling and sublimating.

The more gray goo I shed, the worse I feel. I run downhill, racing the pain that is beginning to build in my joints, chest, head. I stumble and fall, rise, run some more and fall again.

The cirque curls around to the base of the sheer precipice below Abdiel’s summit. Blood seeping from the Table of Accession in a slow cascade stains the chalky cliffs brown. A massive and disgusting heap of discarded human flesh forms a subsidiary peak below—skulls and bones and freeze-dried fresh, piling up like sand grains in an hour glass.

Hordes of brown monkeys roam the pile of human tailings, picking marrow from cracked femurs, squabbling over skulls. I veer away and pick up the pace, hoping they don’t spot me.

More bits of symbiont leak from my nose and ears. Pain and pressure mount inside me. I sprint across a glacier, leaping over small crevasses, desperate to lose as much altitude as I can before my last bit of symbiont protection disappears.

I slither down a crack to the base of the glacier. Milky water tinged with pink flows from beneath the ice. I cross to a moraine and follow its base, jogging through the loose stone, barely keeping my feet as the footing collapses beneath me.

I stop and hunch over, and hack my guts out. The last globs of symbiont leave my every orifice and when they’re gone, a hundred jolts of sciatica zap down my limbs. My lungs turn to stone. My heart skitters and jerks. I drop like a felled tree. I writhe in the scree, convulsing, drooling, spitting flecks of foam—helpless as a rat in a snap trap. The party is over. My Elysial privileges have been revoked.

I somehow marshal enough of my wits to get myself moving again. My limbs feel flabby and uncooperative, but I am able to lurch along, using gravity to assist me, rolling down grassy slopes, sliding down moss-slickened slabs, seeking lower ground however I can.

Each ledge descended is a small victory, rewarded by a quantal improvement in my condition. The ravine broadens to a flat and boggy shelf. I spot the sea beyond the stripped and barren territory of Gihon. The prospect of heading straight for Gihon does not dissuade me. I need lowlands to ease my pain and any sort will do.

But the marshy terrace looks familiar. I remember all the little waterfalls stepping down the creek like crystals on a string. This is where I spent my first night in Gihon with Sabonis in that cave.

I’m not feeling great, but recognizing this scenery sparks my mood and alters my ambition. I decide to make my stand here. I can try to clear myself enough to ease my discomfort to a sustainable ache. No need to resort to Gihon just yet.

I wander the sides of the ravine slopes looking for the cave, but every nook in the ravine wall looks like the next. So I give up and sit down, thinking maybe I can rough it out in the open like every other soul on this mountain.

For an hour or so, I make my peace, and the blankness eases the pounding inside my head.

Hoots and shrieks disturb my reverie. A troop of those ghastly brown monkeys bursts over the crest of the opposite ridge. I look about for a decent stick but anything in reach is spindly or rotten. I make do with a hefty stone.

The orb’s sphincter is well into its daily contraction and the light turns jaundiced. Gihon’s sounding better than a night fending off flesh-eating monkeys, so I rise again, meandering inevitably closer to Gihon like a river to the sea.

As I walk along, my eye traces a curve in the edge of the marsh. It leads my eye to a shiny boulder embedded in the reeds that I remember from that first night. I stop when I’m about even with it and rotate in place.

The arc of shadow marking the cave entrance stares at me like a one-eyed troll. The low wall Sabonis and I built to guard the opening is still intact. I drag my butt up the slope and crawl inside, collapsing into the coarse sand that lines its floor. I never thought a humble cave could feel so much like home.
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