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Pavlos's arms felt as if they were about to come off. The branch he was holding on to might tear free at any second, leaving him without any firm support. Yet his feet couldn't seem to find a purchase.

There was dust everywhere. The canyon was filled with a clay pungence that mixed with the overripe odors of bramble bush and perspiration. He could taste blood from one of the cuts he'd taken on his face, during the panicky scramble down the flaky, slippery talus.

This was the easiest route. He was sure of it.

The branch tore loose just as Pavlos got his right foot settled on an uncertain chunk of partially decomposed granite. For a moment he teetered. The canyon wavering about him in a blur of hazy green thorn bushes and a narrow strip of cloudy sky.

Pavlos threw the cluster of twigs away and grabbed for another hold. But dry leaves came off like chaff in his hands as the ground crumbled beneath him.

The brush that had been so formidable in blocking his earlier descent now broke and parted in front of him like chips flying from an axe. Branches tore and whipped at his arms, which he vainly tried to keep over his face as he fell, running and crashing, down the steep slope.

Somehow, he stayed on his feet, though they skidded on the powdery surface. The shrubbery thickened toward the bottom and the slope flattened, but this slowed him only slightly as the headlong rush sent him splashing across a small rivulet of dirty water to slam, arms outstretched, into the opposite canyon wall.

Fragments of desiccated, ancient rock rained down upon him as he labored to catch his breath in a series of shuddering gasps. The clumps fell in a steady stream -- a miniature landslide onto the back of his head.

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