Treviss Monk and Handol Peace finally reached the crest of the ridge they had been climbing all the day. The hot sun had finally beaten through the dank clouds which had rendered them sodden through their hours of slog. Now they steamed in the golden light as they paused, hands on knees, panting out their exertion. The view was a good one. On one side of the ridge the peaks fell away in scree and scrubby trees into the lush green valley below: home. The other, behind them, was not a view they wished to greatly contemplate, other than to assure themselves they had not been followed. The steep rock face they’d surmounted gave way to a scorched plain of smoke and fire. Their exploration had not gone well.
A month previously Monk and Peace had set off with high hopes for an expedition into the neighbouring valley. Both were deep creases in the earth, protected by high ridges of stone and bitterly sharp rock. On either side the mountains of Harnef Vast towered, stabbing into the sky and piercing the clouds that perpetually clustered about them. One day they’d master the peaks, but for now, a trek into their sister valley would be a mighty enough effort. Long had Monk and Peace heard the tales of a hidden paradise just out of reach, of wild treasures and – in whispers – fearsome guardians of those promised lands. All nonsense, no doubt. People will ever desire to spin tales of a more favourable life just inches away from their own, one they could claim and live for free, if it weren’t for the arduous and dangerous road to claim it. Vast forbid they just appreciate their own life and make it the one of their dreams. Regardless of the stories, there was bound to be something over there. The mayor of Harnef Cleft had wished them well, shaken her head at their foolishness and waved them on their way. A small crowd had turned out to watch them begin the climb, but when Peace looked back hours later, they had dispersed and gone about their daily routine. He and Monk had abandoned that drudge, for adventure.
The climb out had been more treacherous than either imagined. The scree slopes were hundreds of feet of shattered and shifting slate. One step forward might take the adventurers three or eight steps back, and climbing it anywhere near other was a recipe for disaster. Instead they chose their own routes, far apart, in hopes one of them would make it to the top and be able to offer support to the other. They lost track of how much time was lost in the frustrating sliding slope. But they persevered, making it to the top with torn and bleeding hands, and more bruises to their knees than merely two nobbly knees should be able to bear. It was hard to think that where they were headed might be more paradisical than the home they had just left. The waterfalls that swept off Harnef Vast sparkled like gemstones as they crashed into the valley, energising the whole region with blisteringly cold water. A good home. But they turned from it and hauled themselves over the ridge that separated home from the promised lands.
At first glance, the other valley was plainly the twin of the one they had grown up in, complete with cascading rivers from their parent mountain. Yet instead of the dense cluster of houses and buildings that made up the town of Harnef Cleft, this land was dotted with huge structures. From this distance they were near-perfect cones and hemispheres rising from the landscape. Mystery! Adventure! Peace and Monk shared a satisfying meal after their climb, caught their breath and began the slow descent. At least there was no shale here, just hundreds and hundreds of feet of jumbled rock to patiently clamber down. More bruises and scrapes were acquired.
From the base of the valley, those structures were even more impressive. Unlike the dwellings of Harnef Cleft, which rose perhaps four stories at the most, these were far taller, the spires of the cones reaching up like the mountains. The round hemispherical buildings were broader at the base than anything from home, and while they didn’t reach the same heights as the conical things, they were each as broad as the cones were tall. Eager to explore, Peace and Monk almost skipped forth, despite the wearing climb they’d endured. Instead they took seriously their exhaustion, and made camp for the night at the base of the cliff they’d descended.
Handol Peace dreamed of geometry, of stone and brick spiralling up from the earth as if it was being drilled from somewhere far down below, in a realm of twisting gears and grinding cogs. Treviss Monk wandered through a dreamscape of huge figures, whose stride left him dwarfed and tiny, with every step they grew taller and their pace took them far, far away. Neither had ever dreamt of such things before, and they shared their experiences along with their breakfast. Lingering excitement and weariness, no doubt. All packed and firmly replaced on their shoulders, the pair set out for the nearest structure, a towering cone which made the trees that clustered around its base look like toys.
Up close, the cone wasn’t the perfectly smooth form it had appeared. It was much more roughly hewn, with large rocks that had been ground into shape and somehow pressed together. Over the top had been slathered some paste of stone and paint. In places that had cracked, revealing the rockery beneath. Peace and Monk walked its perimeter, seeking an entrance of some kind. It couldn’t possibly be solid, could it? Whatever they were, hollow or not, the cone had been there for a long time. Trees and undergrowth pressed up against its sides, forcing the duo into yet another challenging scramble around it. No doorways or windows presented themselves, and, disappointed, they wandered on to the next gigantic structure.
The dome they encountered showed much the same style of building as the cone had, except this one had a distinct crack running up its side from the ground to near its apex. An opportunity to explore properly. Some plant life had also dared to invade the gaping wound in the dome’s side, and they followed its green trail within. Inside, what they’d assumed would be pitch darkness was quite the opposite. Though it wasn’t sunlight that filled the space, it was almost as bright – like the sun through a gauzy curtain. It cast a shimmering glow over everything. And everything was a lot of things: the dome was hollow, its sides filled with rising balconies from the floor almost all the way to the curving top. Those galleries were densely packed with what Peace and Monk could only describe as treasure. From glinting metal and glass to unrecognisable twists and convolutions of rock and base matter, no two objects were the same. Sensibly, the larger (and some were enormous, taller than a man) creations occupied the lower tiers, the higher up being littered with thousands of smaller items. Peace and Monk stood at the very end of the arrowhead of greenery that had penetrated the chamber, gazing agog at the interior. It was dead silent, they could hardly hear their own breathing, and no sound pierced the dome’s thick skin and ranks of artefacts.
They walked among the unknown shapes, seeking a way up into the next tier, which came in the form of stairs which they almost ignored, so tall was each step that they’d thought it another curio. More climbing: it was the defining feature of their expedition. On the third balcony they started to find things they could actually pick up and inspect rather than gaping at them. That’s when the trouble began. Monk scooped up a long fluted instrument, studded with gems and flaring into a series of bulbs and orbs. Idly he pressed some of those shapes, and was rewarded with a long, deep honking sound. It was terrifyingly loud in the silence and he dropped it in surprise.
Unseen by him, one of the huge folded objects on the lower floor began to unpeel itself. It was that movement which caught Peace’s eye, and he grabbed at his partner. They both watched in amazement as the thing unwound and refolded itself into a tall humanoid figure. Its transformation complete, it paused a moment, then snapped into sudden and urgent life. A powerful red beam burst from its chest, running around and over the stacked shapes. The pair froze as the beam approached them, sweeping over them and past. They held their breath. The beam returned, hot and red on their skin. Peace very carefully placed the knotted stack of cubes he’d been holding back where he’d found them. But it was too late. The guardian had seen them. It smoothly stepped forward, grabbing hold of the edge of the first gallery and swinging itself effortlessly upward, then on to the next. The one where Peace and Monk stood.
It was definitely time to go, and they finally ran, staggering and stumbling over the serried heaps of stuff, keeping ahead of the guardian which loped after them, taking one step for every two of theirs. There was no way they’d make it to the stairs in time, and Peace took a running jump, landing on a tall canister which tipped with his weight, hurling him forward onto yet another bulky shape which flexed as he landed on it, before rolling off and falling to the floor of the dome. Monk was less drawn to that approach and instead put some more distance between himself and the guardian before dangling off the edge and dropping with more caution than his friend. The result was however annoyingly similar. Monk landed and promptly slipped on a stack of spheres which bounced everywhere and left him flailing for balance. In the time it took for him to recover, the guardian was just feet away, having navigated the balcony with its former ease. In shock, Monk fell backwards over the edge of the next gallery and tumbled into the arms of yet another unknowable structure, its four limbs raised up in the air. A statue, possibly, flashed through Monk’s mind as he scrambled out of it and onto the floor. The pile of spheres he’d disturbed continued to roll and bounce, striking one artifact after another in a musical chain.
Monk watched, aghast, as each object that the spheres touched began to glow, an ominous red like that of the guardian which even now flipped itself over to land on the ground between Monk and Peace. It lunged for Peace, who evaded it by tripping over something else. Then the guardian appeared to notice what was happening to the trove it defended. Its red gaze turned from them to the newly glowing and pulsing cases and boxes. It returned to them, head tilted at what Monk would have considered a sardonic angle had it been Peace, then stepped forward, seizing them both with extraordinary speed and bowled them at the crack in the wall. They skidded and bounced across the floor, bumping out of the crevice and into the world. Above them, the whole dome had begun to throb with that same alarming rosy hue.
They ran, and behind them the dome exploded, a shattering sound and sensation which hurled them forward. The dome had erupted, spilling fire and smoke out of its roof. As they staggered back from the intense heat, Peace pointed at the other structures in the valley that they could see. All of them shared that vibrant red beat. It had been time to go so many times in the last few minutes that one seamlessly segued into the next and even as they ran they continued to point and shout as yet another shape turned bright red and exploded in the valley. They didn’t stop running until they reached the vast rocky wall that separated them from home. Even though they were out of breath, the sheer vibrant fear and terror that filled them had them working their way up the slope without thought or discussion. A third of the way up, the closest cone detonated, spewing molten heat for hundreds of feet, melting the rocks beneath their feet. As the promised land immolated itself in fire and fury Monk and Peace continued to climb. They had found a new world of mystery and miracles, but already it was gone.