When the Creator raised his hands, from the tip of his third finger fell our world. It landed in the ocean of reality and began to bloom. It burst out from a single point, spreading with an immeasurable speed. At its centre stood the Peak, the last spot to have felt the Creator’s touch. The life of this world has a natural yearning for the Peak, but only one finds itself drawn towards it.

As soon as Falotika’s eyelids flickered open, he knew that was he place he had to go. Slowly, as the feeling began to creep into his arms and legs, he sat up. He had been lying in a bed of fine sand. Not a few feet away, gradually receding, was the ocean. Its black waters shone with potential, and the flotsam sparkled with gold and turquoise flakes. Each time the waves lapped against the beach a new inch of land was left. Though Falotika paid this no attention.

He instead reached out for the long spear that he suddenly discovered lying beside him in the sand. Its wooden body was covered in intricate carvings and was faintly warm to the touch. Its head was made of polished flint that seemed to drink the light that landed on its edges. Again, this brought no wonder to the freshly woken man. What he did turn to, however, were the fresh footprints in the sand. He studied them for several minutes, sensing that he should know what they meant. Using the spear, Falotika pushed himself to his feet. Slowly, his legs trembling slightly, he moved along the course created by these imprints.

He paused when the track ended with the beach. He was now facing the entrance to a dense forest. Trees three times the size of Falotika loomed above him, their leaves rustling even though there was no breeze. But it wasn’t just the leaves he could hear. He closed his eyes and listened to the soft whisperings of the bark, stretching and climbing further into the sky. He took a hesitant step, wincing slightly as he grew used to the change from sand to grass. He gave a sigh as he heard the chittering of the tiny green blades fanning out, growing and multiplying beneath the milky sun.

The world was growing, that much he knew. He also knew, deep down, that if he waited for too long, he would become overwhelmed. Falotika opened his eyes and took a breath. He then stepped into the woods.

Striding across the spreading grass, flowers in their hundreds bloomed and opened beside Falotika. He was soon surrounded by a thousand different hues; Reds, greens, yellows, pastel pinks, the brightest of blues and a startling magenta that, if he had paused long enough, would have overtaken Falotika’s senses and halted his journey then and there. As they blossomed, they whispered their names to him, so that he could remember and pass it on when they themselves had forgotten the art of speaking.

But something else could be heard. Hidden amongst the lilting of the flowers, was a sly and silvery clicking, like the gnashing of fangs or scraping of claws. It seemed Falotika was not the only thing to awaken that day. He knew he would have to face the source of that uneasy sound, but not today.

After hours of walking, he came to a clearing. The trees around the edges seemed to be inching away, perhaps wary of the creature that sat at the centre.

The bear was sat cross-legged on the forest floor. Inside his lap was an ivory bowl, in which he was rhythmically grinding a pinkish paste. Deep brown fur cloaked the muscles beneath that gave him the strength to rule this land. Even sat down this beast loomed larger than Falotika, and his presence made the man’s knees tremble and his pulse quicken.

There he stood for a moment, on the outskirts of the clearing, watching the great bear. He took a hesitant step forward. The bear continued his task, heedless of the approaching figure.

Finally, when Falotika was close enough to reach out and touch the creature, the bear’s eyes flickered up. Falotika froze in his place.

“Well, well,” the bear growled, “you have arrived.”

Falotika tightened his grip on the spear, readying himself for an attack. The bear raised his head, taking in the small man before him. A grin spread across his snout. With horrid fascination, Falotika took in the array of crooked, white fangs.

“You speak, boy?” the bear asked, raising his paws and beginning to lick them clean.

“I – I do,” Falotika answered.

“Then sit,” the bear said, nodding to a mound of comfortable-looking grass in front of him. “And we will speak together.”

Fixing his eyes on the affable-seeming bear, Falotika crept towards the offered space before slowly lowering himself to his knees. The bear watched with a small smile as the man placed the spear before him, within easy reach.

“You expected me?” Falotika asked.

The bear shrugged. “Does that surprise you?”

Falotika shook his head. “I know who you are.”

“Yet you treat me with such fear?”

“That is because I know who you are.”

“Your kind will not act so wisely in the future.”

The young man frowned. “My kind?” he said. “Do you mean . . . my family?”

The great bear shrugged his heavy shoulders.

Falotika raised his head, staring up at the canopy of leaves above. There was no break here, nowhere for the sun to ease in. “They’re waiting for me,” he announced, more for himself than the bear. “They’re at The Peak, and that’s where I must go.”

“Must?” the bear asked, continuing to grind at the paste, clicking his tongue each time the mound slipped to the bottom of the bowl. “Your quest for The Peak was given to you by that old man. You don’t have to go there.” The beast seemed to think for a moment. “You shouldn’t go there.”

Falotika didn’t know what the bear meant by ‘old man’. He just knew that he had to reach The Peak. People were waiting for him, people he cared about. People who cared about him.

“Breuz,” Falotika murmured, his fingers brushing the grass between his lap and the spear. “You won’t stop me, will you?”

The bear paused, his eyebrows perking up. “I have no interest in playing that role,” he said. “But this world is fresh, it has potential for many things. If you reach that Peak, you will decide this world’s fate for centuries to come.”

“I only want to see my family,” Falotika said quietly, drawing his hand away from the spear.

The beast called Breuz rolled his shoulders back and bared his teeth in a grin. “I like salmon,” he announced, ignoring the human’s startled glance. “I find its flesh very satisfying, but it’s too quick for me.” The bear suddenly stood up, reaching a fearsome height of eight feet. “Behold my form!” he declared, holding his arms wide. “Large and heavy. Strong enough to fell a man such as you with ease, won’t you agree?” Falotika nodded, not even realising he had grabbed hold of the spear. “But the salmon?” Breuz asked, crashing back to the floor. “The salmon is quick, and it slips out of my paws. That’s the way we were made, that’s the way that old man wanted it to be.” A cruel flash streaked across the bear’s golden eyes. “But I want that salmon. So, here’s what I did, little man. I waited, and I waited, sat by that river bank. And do you know what happened? A salmon washed up on the bank. I sat and watched it for a while, fighting my instinct to leap and crush it between my jaws. I watched it flailing on that riverbank, watching as this air that we cherish sucked the life from its body. And, when the last gleam of life vanished from its eyes, I took it, and brought it here.”

Falotika only then noticed the head of a salmon discarded against the trunk of an oak. Its wide, gimlet eyes still bright with shock. Nausea crawled around the base of the man’s stomach, but his eyes were nevertheless drawn back to the bowl in Breuz’s lap. The bear held it up, as if inviting the man to take a closer look. In doing so, Falotika was able to see that what he had first mistaken for a bowl, was in fact a skull. A bear’s skull. This bear’s skull.

Breuz grinned. “I’ll take the salmon’s speed for my own,” he said, using both paws to mash the fish guts together. The grin soon morphed into a scowl. “Or I would,” he snarled. “If I could make it stick!”

He raised his paw, watching the pearls of dark pink begin to fall from his claws. A thin line of saliva began to course down his chin. “How I’m hungry,” he growled. These words sent a shiver down Falotika’s spine. His knuckles whitened as he felt his grip tighten even further on the spear. He was certain he wouldn’t be able to kill the beast; its size and strength was too great. But, perhaps, if he was swift enough, he would be able to injure it enough to make his escape that much easier.

As if hearing his thoughts, Breuz licked the drool from his jowls, then turned to face the now crouching Falotika. “Oh?” he said, shifting his enormous weight. “Not getting bored, are we?”

“Not at all,” Falotika answered, pausing. An idea suddenly struck him, one he almost couldn’t believe was his own. His spare hand fell to a small leather bag dangling from his belt. Until now he hadn’t spared it a thought, it was simply another part of him. But now, in this moment where nothing should have been distracting him from the beast before him, it was the centre of his focus. “I think I might be able to help you.”

Breuz paused, frowning. “You?” he said. “Little Falotika? And how can you help the mighty Breuz?”

The man untwined the purse from his waist and then held it up. The bear studied it, still puzzled. He reached one flesh-covered claw out tentatively. “What have you got there?” he asked, greed tinging his voice. “Bring it closer, so I can see!”

Plucking the spear up, Falotika did as the bear asked. “This will help make the salmon stick,” he explained. Then, pulling at the strings, he opened the bag. “Hold it out.”

Breuz nodded obediently. His thick, red tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, the bear held up his skull. A bitter flood filled Falotika’s mouth as he took a look at the pulped and mangled fish guts within. The beast’s mighty paws had ground it into a shapeless mound that sloshed at the base of the skull. Swallowing the bile that threatened to pour from his mouth, Falotika tipped the purse up until its contents began to creep out.

The young man and the bear watched together as the sweet, golden liquid seeped out of the lip of the bag. They continued to watch as the honey turned into a thick torrent pouring into the bowl.

Pure gluttony flashed in the bear’s eyes as he saw the honey began to blend with the mashed flesh. Falotika held the bag by one corner, shaking it slightly in order to make sure even the last, stubborn drop made it into Breuz’s skull. Once he saw the purse was empty, Breuz dipped his claws into the tincture and began to stir. With a growl of relish, he watched as the salmon began to thicken and congeal, leaving reddish streaks sticking to the walls of his skull.

“It’s working!” he barked. He began to stir more furiously, his fur dampening with both sweat and drool. “I’ll catch that salmon now,” he began murmuring, completely ignoring the young man backing away. “Now my hunger will be satisfied!”

Taking a final glance at the great bear with his skull in his lap, Falotika disappeared back into the trees.

Whilst that honey had indeed helped the bear’s endeavour, it was also sweet and thick. It too would seep into his bones, and the bones of his children. Perhaps Breuz and his descendants would catch many salmon, but thanks to the young man’s gift, there would also be plenty to escape that grizzly fate. The fury the bear would feel at discovering this was too much to imagine. Fortunately, Falotika would be long gone before that day came.

Breuz the Great Bear did indeed not notice Falotika escape. He also did not notice the haunting clicking and scrabbling sounds that hid within the underbrush. He didn’t notice the leaves and the trees began to wither and crumble as this new arrival gorged itself. Nor did he notice as it receded, continuing its original pursuit. Breuz only looked up once, and when he saw the wilted carcass of what should have been a young oak tree, the bear decided to hastily move on.

 

*

 

It was impossible to tell for how long Falotika walked. The sun, just a lemon-coloured disk in the sky, had barely moved. His stomach was silent, and his limbs were as fresh and light as the moment he had risen. But he had long since left the depths of the forest. If he turned and looked over his shoulder, he could just make out the dense green foliage perched on the horizon.

The lair of Breuz was long behind him, and the comforting terrain of grass and soil had given way to coarse sand and rough sand. Unlike the beach where he had awoken, there was no water to be seen, and the heat cast an unrelenting battle against his body. Dunes of bone-white sand stretched out for miles either side. The granules began to seep through his toes, whispering as they stretched out, growing with the rest of the world.

Falotika’s eyes suddenly fell on the lion cub sitting in the mouth of a cave. He felt no fear seeing that animal, though he was sure there should have been. The infant was crouched down, watching the human with eyes brimming with terror. When Falotika took a step forward, the lion shuffled back. By the time Falotika stood in the maw of the cave, the lion was cowering against the back wall. Its head stayed down low, submissively, whilst it stared pitifully at the human.

“Leoro?” Falotika asked, taking another step. The lion cringed, a low growl trembling in his throat.

“. . . please . . .” the cub murmured. “Leave me be . . .”

“Leoro the Fierce Lion?” Falotika crouched down, placing the spear on the floor. “Why do you cower so?”

“I . . . I hear things,” the lion whimpered. “Voices . . . in the desert.”

Falotika turned his head, looking out at the desolate vista. He strained his ears, but all he could hear was the susurration as the dunes deepened, growing for as long as they could.

“There’s no one there,” Falotika announced.

“But I can hear them,” Leoro insisted, trying to sink further into his corner. “They’re coming, that’s what they say. They’re coming . . .”

Deep in his bones, Falotika knew that something had gone wrong. Leoro was supposed to be an equal to the Great Bear; they were both one of The First, progenitors for the world that would be. Yet here the animal was, whimpering in a darkened corner. His potential had been sapped; the Fierce Lion was no more.

The man shook his head, mourning the loss. He took up his spear and made to step out into the light of the desert. A force held him back. He looked down and saw the cub gripping the fur around Falotika’s waist.

“Don’t go . . .” the lion whimpered, his eyes brimming with childish tears. “You mustn’t reach The Peak . . . not yet!”

Falotika wrenched himself free, allowing a burst of anger to flush his face. “What is my quest to you?” he snapped, rounding on the cringing animal. “I have people waiting for me, so why should I make time for you?”

The lion lowered his head again, brushing the dusty cave floor with his snout. His panicked breaths sent clouds of sand into the air. “If you leave me for The Peak,” he murmured. “Those voices will finish me off.”

Falotika stared at the cub and struggled with his feelings. He could hear his bones aching, his blood singing, every fibre of his being urging him to keep moving and reach The Peak. If he didn’t go, who knew what he might miss? The young man glanced towards the horizon, and then sat down in the mouth of the cave. He placed his hands on his knees and waited.

Slowly, dragging his paws across the gritty floor, Leoro joined him. Together they sat, mostly in silence. The only noises came from the cub, whimpering now and then as the voices only he could hear tormented him further. Falotika watched the pearl of a sun as it fattened and grew. Eventually, after more hours than the young man could count, the orb above reached its limit. It began to sink though the sky, gaining an orange tint the closer it drew to the edge.

And then there was darkness. Once the last strands of light had slipped away Falotika lost all sight. For a moment a cold dagger of panic slid through his chest. He could hear the lion beside him whining, his terror magnified with the coming of night. His eyes were just becoming accustomed to the oppressive dark, when a twinkle caught his eye.

Grabbing a hold of the spear, Falotika’s head snapped round. Growing in size was a strange, almost ethereal orb of light. It bobbed in the distance, completely different from the sun, yet Falotika sensed the same potent energy. Another sphere appeared, not too far from the first, followed by a third, and then a fourth. In only a matter of minutes the desert seemed to be filled with these burning globes. That’s when the whispering started.

Look, the little Cub has a friend!

The words crawled into Falotika’s mind, ignoring his ordinary senses. He knew the sounds were coming from the mysterious orbs, but just which one had spoken? They had no features, no mouths, there was no way for them to make noises of any sort. Yet he could hear the unmistakable trills of laughter.

And what’s The Great Falotika doing here? Hmm?

Perhaps that was the globe to his right, burning in the darkness just a few feet away. Shouldn’t you be at The Peak?

Yes, you run along now. A sphere, its edges tinged with a searing white, drifted closer to the cringing lion. We’ll keep this brat company.

Leoro’s eyes were wide with terror. The pupils quivered as strands of light slithered out from the orb’s body and reached towards the cub.

The spear arched through the air and swatted the sphere away, sending it hurtling through the darkness. Its companions began to seethe with anger. He could hear the crackling as their bodies began to heat up.

And what do you think you’re doing?

Don’t get in our way!

This has nothing to do with you!

Get back to your quest, little human!

A cold flood of pain suddenly coursed up his leg. His knees buckled and he nearly dropped the spear. His eyes shot down and widened. One of the spheres had snuck past Leoro and had now wrapped a tendril of light around Falotika’s bare ankle. He fell to one knee, gritting his teeth as iron fangs of agony dug into his mind.

You’d choose this snivelling cat over your own family? The voice was now thunder in his head, each word sending echoes through his bones. How much longer are you going to keep them waiting?

Perhaps you don’t want to meet them?

How selfish, after all they’ve done for you.

Red and white dots burned in his eyes, but Falotika manged to spit out his response. “You’re . . . wrong!”

You know we’re not!

We know what’s in your mind!

And it’s delicious!

Half a dozen more of the orbs drifted closer to Falotika, jumping on him now that he had been brought to his knees. Each tendril that fastened itself to his skin sent a fresh bolt of agony up and down his body. This is what Leoro had been enduring. These creatures had been invading his mind, drinking whatever fears and anxieties had been bubbling beneath the surface. No wonder his figure was famished and reduced.

Now on his hands and knees, his face drenched with sweat, Falotika could feel the flesh begin to waste beneath his skin. Before the night was finished, he would have been devoured by these demons, never to see what awaited him at that Peak.

A mighty roar suddenly shattered the storm of pain. It should have been greater, it should have been powerful enough to make the ground tremble. But it was still better than anything the lion should have been able to achieve. In their gluttony for new meat, the spheres had ignored their previous meal, finally allowing Leoro a moment of peace. Seeing that man on the floor, his body writhing and his eyes blazing with terror, the lion had become overwhelmed with shame.

This man had remained with him, sat by his side in order to protect him. And because of Leoro’s own weakness, Falotika was close to death. The lion’s meagre, frail form lunged forward and landed with another roar amongst the cluster of orbs.

They scattered like birds, momentarily startled. Their shock morphed into amusement when they saw their attacker.

What’s the matter? They sneered. Did you think we’d forgotten you?

One rocketed towards the lion, whip-like extremities already plunging out of its body. Leoro clamped it between his teeth and shook his head violently. The orb screamed in agony as the teeth began to cleave through its flimsy form.

So, the cat has claws! The orbs’ edges began to burn red-hot, winding tendrils sharpening as they studied their prey.

What do you think you can do? Another sphere asked, tauntingly. Look at you! You’re just a shadow of what you used to be!

“You did this to me,” Leoro snarled, yet the lion’s legs were trembling as the orbs began to surround him.

Yes, and it was so easy!

Leoro flinched, fearing the spheres would once again sink their fangs into his already vulnerable mind.

“I . . . don’t know . . . what you are . . .” Falotika, his skin now a putrid, yellowish shade, struggled to his feet. “But . . . you have no place . . . in this world . . .”

The orbs, at hearing his words of defiance, released an anguished scream of rage. Ignoring this, his eyes gained a steely tint, and he raised his spear. The creatures, sensing the young man’s intent, increased their speed. They zipped and rocketed around, their forms becoming a mere blur in the sky. But Falotika had already chosen his target.

There was one particularly bloated globe, fattened heavily by the young man’s despair. Falotika waited, his keen eyes never once leaving his target. And then, when the moment was right, he hurled the spear.

It swam through the air like a shark, landing in the orb’s heart with a thud. Its howls rang out as the spear carried it through the sky. It seemed to go on forever, with no hint of stopping. And then it did. The spear collided against the sky, pinning the orb to the veil of darkness.

The sphere continued to wail in a mixture of hate, anger and pain. Whips of light peeled out of its body and coiled around the body of the spear. The wooden shaft turned a charred black, before eventually crumbling into ash and disappearing entirely. Only the flint head remained, continuing to tether the orb to the sky. And so, it remained there, a bright silver disc illuminating the swathe of black.

There was silence across the valley. The swarm of orbs floated around the mouth of the cave, momentarily stunned. Then, with one voice, they unleashed a scream of such volume chunks of stone and showers of dust fell from the roof of the cave. They shot up into the sky, clustering around their fallen sibling. Their bright, fiery bodies lit up the night sky. If Falotika didn’t know the evil dwelling within the sight, he might for a moment be entranced.

Curse you, Falotika!

The spheres, buzzing angrily above, spat curses at the young man as he slowly lowered himself to the ground. May your journey be filled with despair!

And it will! One said mockingly. For we have seen what waits you at The Peak! When you see for yourself, you will wish we had devoured you this night!

Another roar silenced the chattering globes, now fading into nothing bigger than pinpricks in the sky.

Falotika glanced to his side and felt the breath catch in his throat. Leoro, only moments before, had been a small, cowering cub. But now that he was free of the Spheres’ influence, he was finally regaining his true form. Muscles rippled and inflated beneath the ashy fur. A crest of hair bloomed around his head, and his fangs stretched into a vicious curve. Leoro the Fierce Lion was finally whole again. His eyes, sparkling with lightning, stared down the spheres.

“Take your revenge,” he snarled, the ground quivering beneath his paws. “And see where it gets you.”

For a moment it looked as if they would, disregarding the consequences. But they didn’t. They simply continued to hurl their curses and mourn their fallen. Leoro ignored them, instead turning to Falotika. The colour was returning to his cheeks, and he could feel a fresh surge of strength flowing through his body. “Thank you,” the lion growled, bowing his head humbly.

The young man shrugged and then stood. There was no tremor in his legs now. The events of the night seemed to have left no effect except, perhaps, there was an age to his face that hadn’t been there before.

“I hope you reach The Peak soon,” Leoro said. With that, and another glare directed to the lights now decorating the sky, the lion padded off into the heart of the expanding desert. Falotika watched him go for a few moments before, after his own glance up, heading off on his own path. It felt strange to not have his spear, but he was sure he would get used to it. And he walked, with no idea of what it meant to be cold, or tired, or hungry.

Many hours later, when both the lion and the man were long gone, a new creature scuttled into the desert. The mourning globes fell immediately silent. They knew of the thing that was now crawling beneath them, they were wise to stay quiet. It spent some minutes sniffing at the ground, its voices chattering and squabbling. Once its survey was done, it hurried on, following Falotika’s dwindling tracks. The spheres were glad to see its back.

 

*

 

To tell you all of Falotika’s adventures would take hours we do not have. But, after an age that could never be measured, Falotika stepped onto a sheaf of land that was, undoubtedly, the final portion of his quest.

Standing at the crest of a hill, sweat glistening along his body, Falotika stared out. His heart was beating rapidly and his mouth was suddenly dry. He almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing, to think that he had finally found it. The smile spread across his lips, his heart now thundering in his chest. It was The Peak.

The base was dark and volcanic, and even from where he stood, Falotika could make out jets of smoke billowing from the cracks running along the sloping ground. The mountain itself was colossal, its breadth stretching for as wide as the eye could see. And, as for the top, even when he tilted his head as far back as it could go, it was still lost amongst the ominous, grey clouds.

None of this bothered the young man. He didn’t care how tall the mountain might be, how long it may take him to climb. The end was in sight for him, and that was all that mattered.

Eager to be off, Falotika slid down the hill, stumbling only slightly as the tufty grassland morphed into a terrain of black rock and jagged boulders. The ground thrummed with an inner heat that teased at the soles of his feet, promising to get much worse before better.

For the first time in his long journey, Falotika began to feel discomfort. Whether it was the vile, acidic smoke that coughed out of the earth’s cracks, or the snarled, serrated boulders that seemed to close in with each step he took. Everything about this wasteland seemed intent on slowing him down. Despite the blisters on his feet, the lacerations along his arms, and the deep scratching along his throat, Falotika kept going. The base was getting closer, he could feel it.  Even the oncoming night didn’t make him pause. It wasn’t until the sun was entirely gone, leaving the dark sky filled with those mournful orbs, now simple dots, that Falotika felt himself falter.

The gloom was thick and suffocating, making his trek slow and unsteady. Once or twice he stopped, thinking he heard something behind him. But each time his feet fell still, the noises behind fell silent. These concerns shrank as his journey became more laboured. Once the ground beneath him steepened and the path narrowed to nothing more than a few feet wide, Falotika paused. He had finally reached the base. There was no point in looking up. There was no view now save for the mountain, both to the left and to the right was nothing but the cold grey stone of the impressive tower.

Falotika was almost overcome with the awe. Being so close to his goal temporarily paralyzed him. What brought him back was the sound of something approaching. It was a low, insidious scuttling. A noise that had been haunting him all night, only now it didn’t stop when he did.

Sensing the approaching threat, the young man spun around. What he saw turned his blood cold and made his hair stand on end. A dark mound emerged from the gloom, illuminated by the sprinkling of lights above. Falotika felt the bile rise up his throat as he realised that the shape before him was nothing more than a thousand insects crawling as one. Cockroaches, spiders, centipedes, earwigs and locusts all writhed together, climbing over one another, taking bites out of their neighbours. The creatures seemed to be at war with themselves, but they never once broke their tight formation. The young man had never seen something so hideous.

“What are you?” he hissed.

“You know the names of every beast that fell from the Creator’s finger,” the Colony responded in a hundred scraping voices.

“You are not one of that number.”

“We are Dazevairo,” the dark army responded.

“And what do you seek here?” Falotika asked, he stood his ground in spite of every nerve in his body screaming at him to run.

“Our quest is the same as yours,” Dazevairo announced. “To reach The Peak and claim this fresh new world as our own!”

“My intentions are not as vile as your own!”

“Perhaps they are,” the Colony said, “and the Creator decided not to grace you with the knowledge.” The insects continued to squirm and writhe, a mass of constant movement. But Falotika thought he caught sight of something still at its centre.

“The only thing waiting at The Peak is my family,” the young man stated.

A thousand different cackles emerged from the putrid mass. “Of course they are, little boy,” Dazevairo said, the haunting laugh continuing.

Fire bloomed in the young man’s cheeks. “Do not laugh at me, monster!”

“But it amuses us to find you so naïve,” the creature responded, scuttling a little closer to the young man. “I thought the Creator made us the same, equals in our quest for The Peak. But perhaps you are not as strong as we feared.”

“What are you talking about?” Falotika snapped. The creature’s words, much like the bugs that made up its body, crawled through the youth’s ears. He didn’t want to hear anymore. The sounds that escaped that mass were torturous to him. Yet, at the same time, there was a hypnotic quality to its words.

“The Creator made this world, but he cannot finish it.” The creature began circling Falotika, leaving a trail of mangled bug corpses. “He cannot touch the soil of this world, and so he cannot climb this mountain in order to call an end to the world’s growth. So, we are his vessels. Dazevairo, and Falotika. The dark, and the light.”

There it was again. Something was sitting within the Colony, perhaps its heart? Whatever it was, it wore the insects like a shield. “One of us must reach The Peak, that is our purpose. We must finish the Creator’s world, one of us.”

“What makes you so certain?” Falotika asked.

“Because this was the knowledge with which I was born!” Dazevairo cawed. “We were moulded by the Creator himself to give this world the command by which it would live! As were you!”

“I was not!” Falotika shouted, suddenly growing furious with the creature before him. “I only wish to see my family! I have no interest in commanding this world, or any other!”

The Colony paused and the voices fell silent. A multitude of eyes stared at Falotika, studying him eagerly. “Perhaps . . . we were wrong,” it hissed. “Perhaps you are nothing more than another obstacle. One final wall that we, Dazevairo, must conquer.” Falotika felt the muscles along his body tighten, he could see the Colony doing the same. “So be it,” the mass proclaimed. The Colony suddenly unleashed a piercing shriek and threw itself forward. Earwigs the size of his thumb landed in Falotika’s hair. Spiders with fat, bristly legs began scuttling up his arms. Centipedes wrapped their crimson red bodies around his legs. Bolts of pain shot up and down his body as fangs brimming with venom sank into his flesh. He doubled over, his body beginning to convulse and flail. He could feel things with a dozen legs dancing across his back, cackling manically. He tried brushing the insects from his body, but they simply doubled their attacks, driving their stingers and mandibles into every piece of flesh they could find.

Falotika was sure this was how he was to die. The agony was beyond words, and it was only getting worse as each insect laid a fresh bite against his body. His skin was beginning to blotch, his fingers started swelling and dark spots of fire were popping up in front of his eyes. A fresh, warm liquid suddenly drenched the inside of his mouth. With a sick fascination Falotika realised he was tasting, for the first time, his own blood.

It can’t end this way, he thought as the tears began to fall. I can’t die here!

A pair of fangs were driven deep into his ankle, pumping poison straight into his veins. A scream burst from his lips as he collapsed to his knees. A fresh wave of insects began pouring into his open mouth, scuttling across his tongue and trying to dive down his throat.

The breath was stealing from his body, and the light fading from his eyes, when Falotika finally saw it. It was the object at the colony’s centre, the thing that a thousand multi-legged creatures had been guarding. Falotika could see Dazevairo’s heart. Sweeping the pain aside, Falotika shot his hand out. The creature began to shout, perhaps in fear, but the voice became muffled as soon as Falotika’s fingers wrapped around the pulsing organ. For a moment every insect became still, paralyzed by a mixture of pain and fear.

His breathing laboured, and blood dribbling down his skin, Falotika rose to his feet, the heart in his hand. It was an oily black thing, veins of silver laced across its bulbous body. A centipede fell from the organ, a small spider lingered by gripping the flesh with its fangs.

“You . . . wouldn’t –” Dazevairo hissed weakly.

The rest of its words were lost in a strangled gurgle as Falotika tightened his grip. Viscous, grey blood gushed from the arteries as they burst between the man’s fingers. A hundred different screams rang out as ripe flesh plummeted out of Falotika’s stained hands. The insects clinging to his body curled in on themselves, their death-rattles howling. The ones in his mouth turned to ash, and the venom curdled beneath his skin. When the last echo of Dazevairo was gone, Falotika opened his hand and dropped what remained of the Colony. It landed on the stone with a wet thump.

Feeling the last sting of poison leaving his body, Falotika let out a sigh of both relief and exhaustion. He swayed slightly, but he resisted the temptation to fall. He knew that, if he fell now, he would never stand again. Instead, letting the rising sun wash him clean, Falotika took a deep breath and then turned yet again to face the mountain. When he was sure he wouldn’t collapse, the man began his final trek.

When he was gone, and the sun was set firmly in the sky, a bird landed amongst the fang-shaped rocks. It gave a hungry chirp and then began to peck at the mangled remains.

 

*

 

The journey up the slopes of the mountain was more arduous than Falotika had ever imagined. The further up he reached, the colder and more vicious the wind became. It lashed against his bare flesh, howling across his face and wrapping around his legs, trying to trip him up.

The wounds criss-crossing his body scabbed over, eventually healing into pale white scars. His hair, once sleek and black, began to be peppered with grey, gradually fading to a pale white. In fact, he was a changed man when he finally reached the clearing. His back was hunched, his faced was lined and his hands trembled from the cold. What little strength he had been using to stand abandoned him, causing him to collapse to his knees.

He had finally made it. This wide patch of land, breaking above a circle of iron-grey clouds, this was The Peak. A smile inched its way across his dried lips as he began to crawl further forward. The snow turned his fingers numb, and the curling mist obscured his vision. He could hear their voices just a few feet away. They were exactly as he had imagined. They were laughing joyously, calling out his name, urging him to hurry up and join them.

His knees were wailing in pain, both from the biting cold and the jagged stones slicing into the skin, but Falotika kept on crawling. He went on, holding his hand out, his fingers groping and hoping someone would reach out and take a hold.

Then there was nothing. The fog pulled back just before Falotika shuffled off the edge of the mountain. A vicious, mocking wind whipped at his face, swatting him back. He pulled away from the precipice, staring with disbelief at the expanse of sky before him. He turned his head, first to the left, and then to the right. The entirety of the Peak was no greater than a ten-foot wide slab. And it was empty.

Falotika felt his chest tighten and his mouth fill with a bitter taste as the realisation threatened to consume him. Everything that foul beast, Dazevairo, had said was true, and everything he, Falotika, had believed was a lie.

A powerful scream erupted from Falotika, one drowning in despair and fury. It rang out across the world, freezing it in place. Every tree, every beast and every star in the sky fell still and silent, waiting for what would come next. Falotika pounded the ground with his fists, continuing to beat at the stone until his fists were dripping with his own blood. He cursed the Creator’s name until his words became rattles in his cracked throat. And he wept. The tears streamed down his face as he mourned his loss and the wasted years he had spent.

He didn’t notice when the bird landed in front of him. In fact, he didn’t look up until the creature gently pecked the top of Falotika’s bowed head. When he finally glanced at his new companion, what he saw was a magnificent creature of bright red plumage. A beak of pure gold shone in the early light, and its tail, the feathers tipped with lightning yellow, streamed out behind it. It stood proud on long, willowy legs and watched Falotika with pitying blue eyes.

“Why do you mourn, Falotika?” the bird asked quietly.

“Because I was tricked,” Falotika explained quietly, “by the cruel man that calls himself our Creator.”

The bird studied the man with a critical eye. “And how did our benevolent Creator ‘trick’ you?”

“He gave me knowledge,” Falotika explained. “He allowed me to believe that, when I reached the Peak, I would find my family.” He spread his weak arms wide, allowing the empty plain to speak for itself.

The bird tottered closer to the shrunken Falotika. Slowly, it wrapped a wing around his shoulders. “Mortal beasts such as we,” it declared, “can never claim to know the mind of our Creator.”

The creature spread its other wing, blood-red in colour and twice the size of its body, and pointed it at the sky. “You are one of the Creator’s children,” it continued, “and so your family belongs with him, up there!”

Falotika dragged his head up and stared at the bank of clouds above. “How do I reach them?” he asked quietly.

Unwrapping its wings from around the man’s shoulders, the bird gave an indifferent shrug. “That’s not a question I’ve ever had to ask,” it announced smugly. “I am Avalain, and there is no height which I cannot reach!”

“Help . . . me!” Falotika reached out for the bird, but it gave a light chirp and dodged his questing fingers. It squawked out a grating laugh as the man, still weak from his climb, collapsed onto the ground, his face falling into the snow. As if to add further to the taunt, Avalain spread its wings and launched itself into the sky. Its long, golden feathers trailed out behind it as it swooped and circled above Falotika’s head.

“If you had wings like mine,” Avalain mocked, “reaching your family would be no effort at all!”

Falotika raised himself up, his arms trembling beneath the effort. He watched that hateful bird as it continued to dance through the sky, just out of reach. “If you had your spear,” Avalain went on, “you could shoot me out of the sky! But you threw it away! Perhaps, if you had kept your honey, you might have tempted me down!” The bird’s eyes were full of malice as it glared down at the prostrate figure. “Instead you have nothing, Falotika! With only one step between you and your family, you have finally fallen!”

Continuing to swirl overhead, Avalain watched as Falotika began to weep. The tears coursed down his face and rained down on the ground. For a brief moment he had been gifted with hope, only to have it snatched away. As the grief tore through his body, his tears became a stream that poured along the peak, growing and growing until a great river crashed down the slopes. When it reached the base, a great ocean’s worth crashed down, encircling the mountain. Falotika’s wails of anguish became thunder in the sky. His heartache became a storm that ravaged the land, cracked the earth and made all creatures flee to the furthest edges they could reach.

Without even realising it, Falotika gave the world its final command. His final breath was spent cursing the Creator and that taunting bird. And, in his heart’s last few tremors, he longed to be with his family in the sky.

There, at the Peak, on his hands and knees, Falotika died. He was still there, centuries later, when the first man and woman emerged from his calcified remains. They took no notice of him; their sights were set purely on the sky. Hand in hand the pair stumbled down the mountain whilst, high above them, a bird circled the Peak.

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