Perhaps this place declined in his vision along with his estimation of its character. Where he once thought it warm and pretty it had been, now where he thought it dying in insular it has become so. But then there was the cliff; it came back to the cliff somehow. Shortly after it he had been afraid, very much so, not only of the seductive pull of the place but of the people's hiding of its true nature. There was danger there, yet following his experience the city did not become more frightening. Its people remained cold and polite as always, their features degrading, though never changing overtly. He wondered if he watched them, would they change before his eyes?
Dirt and refuse were caked between the stones of the street, replacing the ones that were missing and making his walk less than comfortable. Still the people went about as though nothing had changed. In some time he arrived at the city square before the fountain, the fountain spouting brown and stinking water. The young girl had changed little as far as the quality of the stone. Her face was still pocked and all pieces of the statue chipped as before but her expression had altered. The circlet of serpent was not a gift, she did not eagerly anticipate being crowned. Her mouth was wide with silent fright and her eyes frozen open, unable to fight the snake's strength. Its fangs were drawn, sharper than stone could possibly be, its mouth open and so close to her face. She held it back now, as best she could, but she was so young and it was so wild and unpredictable.
The Traveler did not intend to stay the following day to discover whether the snake would strike. He set to fill his pack and restock before moving from this place, perhaps forever like so many places before it, though not always under such distressing circumstances. He felt like the little statue girl felt; he struggled to fight the snake from poisoning him but with time it was inevitable. Time was something he did not intend to give it.
As he left the grocer he saw the young baker woman walking about, hunched over as though in ward of something. He met her stride and she slowed to allow him nearer.
"So you've noticed the people, then," he said to her.
"How could I not? I saw the city was a bit worn when I arrived yesterday but there's been a huge change. Not just the people, the buildings, I mean, have you seen the buildings?"
"Of course I have. You know when I arrived the day before you I'd never seen such splendor. It was so rich here, the people so beautiful, the streets shining as though made of gold. I felt hideous by contrast, an aging man beaten by heavy skies. But now..." he trailed off.
"I'm glad to know it isn't just me. I have what I came for, or at least I know I won't be employing any new techniques at my own shop. I intend to leave today, as soon as I explore a bit. I haven't seen the cliffs yet."
The cliffs. There was something about them, something so clear, something he knew instinctively. He struggled for it vainly, a fleeting feeling so much like deja vu that could not be caught again.
"I'll be leaving myself today. I hesitate to think what the city will look like tomorrow," he thought of the snake, the little girl, "with how quickly it's all deteriorating. We might very well wake up in rubble."
Their path took them closer to the cliff. Dread filled the Traveler just as wonder filled his companion, though neither could think why. He broke from her side.
"I have a few more things to do before I can leave the city. Perhaps I'll see you again before I go," he told her.
"Maybe I'll join you," she said hopefully. "I'd like to see a little more before I return home, to come back at least with new ingredients if not a new technique."
"I think I'd like that," her told her in earnest. Companions were not foreign to him, but they were rare. Those whose interests were struck by his life were at first enthralled by the seeming romance of it all. They also became quickly tired of such a living. The unsure, the discomfort, the loneliness, the weather, and the walking. The endless walking with no destination. The Traveler was rare in that case, in not needing a destination.
They parted on this idea. She drew nearer to the cliffs while he meandered away. It seemed with each step the severity of her investigation came back to him. Cliffs, he thought, stairways of vapor, promises of other worlds, danger, death. He froze, now in the city square. How did he get here so quickly? In turning to race where he came did he see the statue again? Had the serpent finally struck the girl?
It was rare that he ran but he did now, his strides great and heedless of the uneven road. The forever long road, stretching before him to the cliffs. He seemed to go nowhere even in his great speed, to be running against a steep slope or swift waters. Onlookers paid him no mind, nor did they determinedly ignore him. They faded to nothingness behind him, voices silenced by his footfalls and deteriorated faces blurring in his vision.
The cliffs were in sight now, the woman's back to him, her hair whipping wildly in the sea winds. She was so close to the edge, and he was so close to her. He thought to reach her; to pull her back like none pulled him back days ago. He thought to shout, having no name by which to call to her he tried to say stop or wait or anything but his breath was suddenly gone from him, stolen by the thick ocean spray. She was an arm's length away now but seemed to be getting further, further outward and so quickly.
Briefly he thought he saw her foot land on something solid, as though that stair of mist held fast beneath her. If it had, it did not for long. She fell forward, turning with her other foot as though to grasp onto something. His hand perhaps. He reached for hers, their fingertips touching for what seemed like forever before they slipped away. She did not scream; he did not cry out. He collapsed on the solid ground, his forehead in the soil in a bow to her loss. Somehow he expected to look below and not see any trace of her but the risk of what he would see was too great.
Dimly aware now of his need to leave the cliffs behind lest they sway his own mind again, he turned his back to the tragedy. His pack. He needed his pack, now filled, dropped in the town center while he broke for his run. The road was short again, time swift again. He was by the inseparable piece of equipment in such a short time, eyes never peeling from the horizon. A horizon he intended to meet that day, out of the city, with the stars above him again.
Were they to have faltered from that spot he may have noticed the seemingly pristine stones in the road, the conspicuous absence of grime citywide. He may have noticed the buildings in such a lovely state, catching the light and playing with it just as they had that first day, every house and shop, the walls all undamaged. He may have seen the people changed, again beautiful but without the noses and eyes the young baker woman pointed out to him. They would be young, pretty, and composed almost entirely of delicate green eyes that would appear to shine in the moonlight, made more vibrant by vague semblances of shadows attempting to cross them. He may have caught the fountain, the girl humbled again in placing the circlet upon her brow, again a snake engulfing its tail.
But his eyes were frozen to that horizon.