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Wind blows, across the cold peaks.

The Traveler climbs, slowly, painfully. For how many years has he been walking? He does not know. His legs have become used to the ache. His back has become used to the weight of the pack upon it. Even his hand, closed around his walking-stick, made from an old bone and topped with the head of a doll. He does not know if his hand will ever open again.

There is no sound, apart from the wind blowing. His breathing is quiet and regular through his scarf, a scarf that bears an advertisement for something he does not recognize, in a language he does not understand. The ends of it flutter in the wind, and occasionally a piece is torn off. He wonders if there will come a day, eventually, when those winds have eaten it in its entirety.

Footstep after booted footstep. Those make a sound, he supposes, but the sound of them is always the same. He has tuned it out, it no longer registers with him. His boots are mismatched, old and decayed. One is pliant black leather, tough and high, designed for a soldier, perhaps, or a gravedigger. Who can say? The world has no need of either now. The other is laced and brown, dark stains splattered across it and a plastic tread worn smooth beneath it. He wonders how many others have worn that boot, for it to fit so nicely onto his foot and his alone, as though gratefully hugging it.

He has seen many things since he left his home. He has seen what were once fields, crops, and even earth blown away, with only cold, smooth rock beneath. He has seen desert cities, so melted and decayed that they cannot be distinguished from the rock formations that wither to nothing around them. He has seen ships, sailing in a vast armada, pitted iron hulls and sail-less masts and bent, rotting gun turrets, half-buried in their thousands in the vastness of a desert.

Once, he even found another person.

They had been dead, no more than a skeleton. In their hand had been a stuffed bear, the stuffing now long gone and only one button eye remaining to indicate a face. Spilling from their ruined back was a wallet, all identifying features long since worn away, and a fat, boxy television, its glass screen shattered and its rabbit-ear antennae long since gone.

It was from them that he had gotten the scarf.

These mountains, though…they remind him of something. His home. The place where he had grown up. It was only a golden feeling, now, no concrete images or sounds to attach to it, but there had been mountains. He is sure of it. Mountains like the spire of a dragon, looming up and up and on forever, as though beckoning him to places he could never go.

From somewhere overhead, there comes a sound. It is a faint roar, getting gradually louder and louder. He pauses and looks up, pulling his goggles over his eyes to protect them from the chill – their tint is no longer needed, now the sun is vast and dim and red. It is an airplane, there on the horizon, getting slowly larger as the white trail it rides on stretches behind it. It had been white, once, surely. Those wings had been unblemished, those windows unbroken. But not anymore. There are no people aboard that plane. No cargo. It is simply an echo, a world trying to remember why it had once done what it did, and still doing it in hopes of returning to a happier time.

As he crests the mountaintop, he sees something down there, amid the peaks.

It is a hole, a vast gaping pit, leading down and down into the dark of the world. Once there had been fire down there, or so they said, fire that would come out through hungry mountains and drown the world in smoke. Now it is cold, and empty, and home only to strange, hollow things.

One of those things rises up from that hole, huge and old and slow, almost as though it is growing instead of moving. A worm – he thinks that is the word. Its body is ash-grey and segmented, half-visible through the clouds of dust between it and him. It rises, swaying gently, like a pillar into the air, a creature of a size he cannot begin to guess at. And what would be the point of putting a number on something so large?

Its jaws open, a smooth, multifaceted movement like a building falling, and then they close again. The airplane is within them, the rotting hulk of it still spewing the jet-steam from the immense thing’s jaws as it sinks down again, slowly, slowly. One of the scavengers of the world, a colossal corpse-worm that feeds on the rotting body of the Earth.

He stands there, watching, leaning on his walking-stick like a third leg as it slowly retreats. For a moment, its head seems to face him, and if it had had eyes, he could have half-imagined it looking at him. But he knows that it does not. All that it does is return to its long, slow life, down there in the cold, dusty darkness, the world it has made for itself in this world that has already died.

And then it is gone, and the rocks are still again.

He turns, and begins making his way down the other side of the mountain.




Written by StalkerShrike
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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