Not a breath of air stirred as Tinjin walked slowly from camp toward the rim of the canyon. Here and there, the burnt, arid landscape blazed white with patches of melting snow that had accumulated overnight. Tinjin paused, feeling the chill lifting from the morning air as the sun mounted higher in the sky.
It was seven degrees centigrade, balmy for winter. Down in the canyon, however, it was much cooler. The lack of wind prevented the cold, moist air of the inner canyon from mixing with the warmer weather above, and the temperature difference filled the canyon with a thick fog.
Tinjin looked out across this sea of clouds. Spires and long, jagged ridges of rock rose from the vapor, like mountains and ships poised on the ocean. After eight weeks stationed on the rim, Tinjin had surveyed much of this section of the canyon and knew every cliff and crag visible from camp.
It seemed less familiar now, however, cloaked in its strange, white veil of secrecy. Cacti and small, hardy desert mammals native to this region were the only things hiding in that fog, but that knowledge did nothing to prevent a tingle from running down Tinjin’s spine. Or perhaps it was simply the chill in the air.
Tinjin started back for camp but had only walked a few paces when a faint rumble passed through the stony ground. Pausing momentarily, Tinjin frowned and waited. Again, the stone seemed to tremble, an odd sensation that vibrated the soles of Tinjin’s boots.
Hesitating near the brink, Tinjin turned once more to the mysterious canyon, which had sequestered itself beneath a thick, deceptively peaceful cloak. Raising a hand, Tinjin squinted against the glare, examining the canyon more carefully this time. A third rumble shook the ground, but the source of the vibration was nearer now, audible. Tinjin heard it this time.
There could be no doubt that something in the canyon had roared. A movement caught Tinjin’s attention and moments later was followed by the sound of boulders falling. Before toppling over and disappearing into the fog, one of the spires of rock in the middle distance shook as if it had been rammed. The roar sounded again. Then Tinjin saw it.
A hump appeared in the inverted sea of clouds. It moved forward rapidly, like the bow wave of an invisible ship or a submarine hidden beneath the waves. Behind the thing, whatever it was, the fog turned in great eddies and whirlwinds that Tinjin estimated to be a quarter of a kilometer across or more. Something truly massive inhabited this canyon. No meteorological or geological event could account for such behavior.
Again, the vibration rose from the canyon, deafeningly loud now. Whether the bellow of some great mechanical contraption or the monstrous roar of an immense creature, Tinjin could not say. The hump appeared once more, closer than ever before, pushing up a long line in the clouds.
The fog broke suddenly, parting as two massive, dark spires appeared. They towered, smooth like the flukes of a gargantuan whale or the stabilizers of an enormous flying machine, tipped to one side, then receded into the mist. The thing was right alongside Tinjin now, moving fast, forcing Tinjin to run to keep up with it.
Another spire jutted up through the clouds, blocking the path of the giant thing. The hump disappeared and the fog swirled. With earsplitting intensity, the roar came again from the canyon and with a crack like thunder, the spire of rock collapsed. It tumbled beneath the clouds, descending into swirling obscurity.
The fog grew still and the world fell silent. Tinjin remained on the cliff’s edge for hours in stunned contemplation. What had it been? Tinjin had no way to know. What was certain, however, was that this canyon was inhabited by more than just cacti and small mammals. The day wore on, growing warmer, and the fog began to clear.
Tinjin could clearly see the devastation in the canyon below. Ridges had been scoured clean, piles of rubble littered the riverbed where spires of rock had been sent tumbling down, crushed to bits by some unknown force. There was no sign, however, of the thing that had caused such destruction. Tinjin stayed for hours, but the afternoon passed without further incident.
Six weeks passed, then Tinjin’s transmissions to base abruptly stopped. When a rescue party finally arrived, Tinjin was nowhere to be found. Scrawled hastily on the day of Tinjin’s final transmission, the camp’s last log entry read simply, “Cloud inversion.”
What happens next?
This story challenge follows a slightly different form than most in our Saturday Story Wars series. It is not about what happens next. Instead, the challenge is to create the next original short story around the same theme.
That which frightens us most is that which we cannot fully perceive. We are as thrilled as we are afraid of the monster we cannot see. This is why our subconscious is better at giving us a scare than any horror movie. The giants which loom in that darkness, always remaining just beyond our waking comprehension, are both so very dear and damaging to us because they are of our own creation. We love to fear them, and yet we dread them and keep them shrouded in darkness. This, above all else, is why our greatest fears are so chilling to us—we cloak them in mystery.
We are going to bring monsters to the surface, drawing them to the twilight of our imaginations where their presence can be felt, sensed, but seen only darkly. Raise the beast but do not lift the shroud of mystery. Keep us in fear of what might be beyond the veil. That is your challenge.
(Featured Images by National Park Service/Erin Whittaker)
(Roggen Wulf, 2015)