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The City in the Cliff

In the velvet blue darkness of the night, the city gleamed. Two brothers knelt on the cliff, looking down on the sight. Both were young enough to be excited, old enough to know better. They exchanged an arched eyebrow, grinned, and got started. They’d come equipped, not just with youthful enthusiasm, but with ropes, anchors, waters and good shoes. They weren’t fools, though their parents would certainly have described them as foolish. Brosh was first over the edge of the cliff, the rope twisted about his hips as Cresh belayed him down. The descent wasn’t particularly challenging, but it was a one-mile vertical drop and caution was warranted. The plan was to belay down to the city where it nestled halfway down the cliffside, adventure, then return back up the cliff as quick as they could manage it. Brosh reached a ledge from which the city could be easily accessed, tied himself off and returned Cresh’s favour, belaying his brother as he too began his descent. Brosh was so near to the city that he could hear its constant buzz of activity, and its lights danced in his peripheral vision. Paying attention to his brother’s progress was fraught with distraction, but he managed to keep his fist tight on the rope as Cresh’s feet drew nearer. The wait seemed endless, but at last Cresh alighted next to Brosh, and they both untied themselves, and forced themselves to prepare properly for the re-ascent, laying their ropes and harnesses neatly. With that accomplished, they carefully climbed down the next ledge, unprotected from the fall. Then – before them – the city.

Only the part of the city they’d been able to see from above was visible, most of it disappeared inside the cliff. The outer wall was a delicate-looking filigree, like the veil of a forest-growing fungus, stretched out and glistening. Cresh reached out to touch it but Brosh batted his hand back, “too fragile, we’ll have to crawl in under the arch.” The arch was what in a human city might be taken for a main gate, but for this half-sized cliff city, it might be a window, or a random void. The buzz that Brosh had heard had stilled, and it was all eerily quiet in the night. Despite their size, despite their brash confidence, the brothers felt a chill at the prospect of entering the city. There were endless stories at home of the angelflies, the tiny creatures who wrought its architecture with mandibles and spit, the ones who knew they were there, and had fallen silent while their intentions were assessed. No point having come so far without keeping going… The brothers wriggled under the arch and awkwardly shuffled forwards, pulling themselves with forearms and pushing with their toes. More delicate structures surrounded them, elaborate overhanging galleries and almost invisible threads binding the city together. With much effort, the brothers pushed through along the wide avenue they followed and found themselves inside the cliff. There the ceiling rose up and they could stand once more. The city billowed out around them as if a glass blower had filled the cavern inside the mountain – the city followed the sides up and over the roof. The city contained the brothers entirely, they were in a golden snowglobe.

This is what the brothers had come to see, and they stood there in silence, breath halting as they waited. After a moment the sounds of the city resumed. The faint buzz that had been audible outside returned, as loud as a cat’s purr when you lay your head directly on their belly. They’d been judged no threat, so they began to explore. Inside, this was much easier. The city gave off its golden light, and its inhabitants emerged from whatever structures they’d been hiding in, adding their internal glow to the city. They flew, mostly, though plenty could be seen crawling and building further unfathomable objects and architecture. Cresh stepped carefully over gossamer bridges and around soaring towers. At the back of the cavern, great rows of barrel-shaped columns arched overhead, dense and strong. As they looked around, it became clear that the city was a much more solid construction than they’d imagined from its outer parts. Except for the narrow channel they’d entered by, there was no sight of rock anywhere. The little angelflies had filled the space completely. The spires that speared down from the ceiling met rising towers, almost reinforcing the city in its little hollow. Still, it was a wonderland to wander in. How such small things had made something so beautiful was the subject of many of those stories back home. Some believed the angelflies had been here as long as people, others that they’d hatched within the mountain, others that a falling star had brought them here. At first, people had stolen parts of the city – the pretty things – to make jewellery, or knives, because the stuff that the angelflies worked was harder than steel when it set. That act became one of boldness and stupidity, because the angelflies would come to get back what had been stolen. The only known incidence of violence had been when an angelfly was crushed by a thief who tried to keep hold of the golden arc he’d stolen. Whether he was bitten or infected or what, no one knew, but he’d been found in his bed the next day, golden spars growing out of his eyes and mouth, quite dead. After that, the angelflies were mostly left alone. Not quite feared, but certainly respected. Curiosity about them never dulled though, and the stories multiplied.

Deep inside the cave, the brothers noted the rising sound of the buzz around them: it grew deeper and louder, starting beneath their feet and spread all around them.

“Are they angry, do you think? Perhaps we should…” Brosh trailed off as the rumbling grew more intense. The shapes that decorated the walls around them began to move, shapes revolving like clockwork as graceful sheets of gold bloomed out from the towers and spires that pierced and penetrated the city. Cresh just shoved him forward, back toward the hole where they’d come in. It was closing, slowly being filled in by a crowd of angelflies, extruding that golden substance all around its edges. It wasn’t closed yet. Cresh knelt and gently brushed the angelflies away from the entrance, taking extreme care not to harm them, choking back his own fear of the angelflies and of being trapped as he did so. With the angelflies temporarily taken to the air, buzzing frustratedly around them, Cresh yanked Brosh to the ground and pushed him through the hole. The interior of the cavern continued to revolve and Cresh couldn’t help but watch as the architecture snapped into place, fascinating patterns interlocking. The humming increased, as did sharp explosive shocks that bled between sound and light. Brosh’s feet finally vanished and Cresh knelt down to follow him. As he pushed himself under, the angelflies began to return to their task of filling in the gap, and he blew gently at them as he passed under them. There was little he could do but wriggle faster, gasping as the hole narrowed. A moment later his brother seized his wrists and yanked him fully out into the darkness outside. They stumbled and tripped, accidentally kicking down a gleaming archway. They froze, but there was no response from the angelflies – the hole they’d entered the city by disappeared entirely and the inner city was completely sealed off.

The rumble persisted, a fully physical sensation now, shaking a shower of dirt and small stones down over the brothers. With an enormous roar, the cliff face split open, raining more rock on the gleaming outer portion of the city. The brothers huddled under what remained of the ledge that they’d climbed down to as columns of stone crashed off the cliffside to tumble into the darkness below. With an appalling scream of metal being dragged across stone, a golden orb emerged from the hole in the cliff: the angelflies’ city revolved into the night air, hung for a moment as though watching the pair closely, then rose up, up until it became just another gleaming star in the night. The brothers were left in the ruins of the outer city, the delicate shapes crushed by the falling cliff. Wordlessly, they each took up a small piece of the golden wreckage, slipped their harnesses over their hips and began the long, long climb up to the top.

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The City in the Cliff

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