Ascent

I drift in oblivion, in dreamless sleep. The world beyond my unconsciousness is cold and dark. But here, in this empty state of mind, I am warm and content.

Then a voice pierces the void, waking me. “Time to ascend, lads.”

My mind wants to stay where it is. My body wants to keep sleeping. But I know that voice; it is Sir Cedric, our leader. And I know what he means; it is time to begin the quest for which we were chosen. We, the Six Knights selected for our noble deeds. We, who must ascend The Mountain.

I breathe in cold air, snap open my eyes. I lie on my back in my thick, warm bedroll, watching the sky. It is grey with clouds. Does a storm come?

Voices grumble around the camp as my comrades rise. Sir Leon, ever the jester, jokes about Gavin’s snoring, pretending a great beast must have slept nearby during the night. Sir Thomas, my dearest friend, stands beside me, looking down with his kind, grey eyes. He says nothing, for he is mute, but through hand gestures he tells me to rise. I sigh and leave the bedroll’s cosy embrace.

We have a rushed breakfast. As I eat, I watch the beauty around us. Behind the camp is a pine forest, silent and still on this cold, early morning. Before the camp is a lake leading to the foot of the Mountain.

“Big, innit?” says Sir Gavin, youngest among us, as he watches the Mountain while we eat.

“Bigger than the tales told,” replies Darius, smallest but noblest of the Six.

He’s right. Legends speak of a Mountain so tall that it scrapes the stars at night. From where we sit, we do not see the top, for the thick base disappears into the clouds. But if that is just the base, how high must the peak be?

We finish our breakfast. We do not clear the camp. We pack only the bare essentials, strap our swords to our sides, and set off. The plan was to walk around the lake, but when we arrived here yesterday, we saw that there were small boats on the shore. Now we paddle them across the clear water.

While we row, the others chat excitedly about the journey ahead, but I don’t listen, for it frightens me. We’ve read accounts of adventurers climbing the Mountain. None end well. Yet we must do it, for there is a Light at the top of the Mountain, a Light that brings peace and happiness. A Light we must shine in our dark kingdom to restore the hope our people have lost.

The chatting ends when we reach the opposite bank. We leave the boats and approach a small cabin at the foot of the mountain. An old man sits outside, humming happily as he carves a wooden figure. It’s too soon to tell what the figure is meant to be, but it looks like some sort of animal, maybe a deer or horse.

He looks up from his work and frowns. “I hope you boys aren’t climbing the Mountain.”

Cedric replies, “Aye, we are. Don’t try dissuading us, old man. Our minds are set.”

The carver looks sad. He puts his figure and knife down and stands. “Please, hear me out. Many have tried—”

Cedric interrupts, “We are not the others who tried. We are the selected Six. We must ascend. We will ascend. Come, lads.”

He turns away from the old man and strides towards the Mountain. We follow, ignoring the carver’s calls.

A worn path snakes along the Mountain’s slope. This part of the journey is easy, for the path is not steep, and, according to legend, the trials we might face here are ones that only simple men fall to. We are not simple men. So, we trudge along.

The path leads us to our first trial. We stop by a large, closed chest on the side of the road. Sir Gavin kneels to open it.

“Don’t bother,” says Darius. “You’ve heard of the trials, Gavin.”

“I just want to look,” replies Gavin. He opens the chest, revealing glittering gold coins.

Leon laughs loudly. “Ah, Greed, the first trial! Mountain, you’ll have to try harder than this.”

But Gavin does not move on like the rest of us. He stays there on his knees, staring at the gold with hungry eyes. Cedric rests a hand on our friend’s shoulder and says, “Gavin, come! It’s just a bit of gold.”

“No!” yells Gavin, springing to his feet and drawing his sword. “It’s mine!”

Cedric and Leon draw their swords. I do, too. Thomas watches with wide eyes, fearing the fight to follow. But Darius, ever the noble knight, steps between us and Gavin. “He’s made his choice. This isn’t worth spilling blood over.”

Cedric sighs and sheathes his blade. “No, it’s not. Let’s move on.”

We continue the path up the Mountain. I keep glancing back as we walk, watching Gavin kneel before the chest of gold. I can hear his loud cackles of delight, his excited chattering as he runs his hands through the coins. I feel angry and sad that he failed so easily.

The path leads us to a cliff, a sheer wall stretching high. I place my hand against it. The rock is cold like the air. “This is Coward’s Cliff?”

“Aye,” replies Cedric. “A treacherous climb only the bravest would dare.”

Sir Leon chuckles. “The bravest might be the most foolish.”

Darius speaks sternly. “You have faced greater foes than this.”

“I suppose I have,” says Leon. He clenches his fists, breathes deeply, and adds, “Fine. I can do this. Let’s go!”

Thomas grins. My friend loves climbing. He leads the way, scaling the wall like a monkey. Leon whistles as he watches. Cedric mumbles something about getting old, then begins the climb, too. Darius follows, then me. I hear Leon climb just below me.

I move much slower than Thomas. Each stretch is a struggle. My cold hands ache with each new stone I grip. My boots feel too slippery for the footholds. As I go higher and higher, the climb becomes harder. My fingertips are burning. My heart is hammering.

Halfway up, I look down. Leon watches me with a pale face. Beyond him is a deadly fall. I want to smile and encourage Leon, but truth be told, I’m just as frightened as he is. No rope will rescue us from a mistake. A single slip means death.

I look up. Darius has gotten far ahead of me. Before I continue following, a roach scurries over a rock to my right hand. I’ve never seen an insect so large. It stops and stares at me with beady eyes. Then, to my horror, it speaks with a small, unnatural voice. “I saw you met Greed down there. Your friend failed.”

“He wasn’t prepared for this,” I reply, annoyed with the insect.

“You aren’t either,” argues the roach. “This part of the Mountain is easy. What’s ahead is worse, more dangerous. You should turn back while you can.”

I laugh softly. “You must be Fear. Well, I’m not afraid, little bug.”

That’s a lie. I’m terrified. I might fall at any moment. I might reach the top and die to some new danger. But I must attempt this quest; I must strive to reach the Light! So, I embrace the anxiousness in my heart, hone it into determination. Yes, I am afraid, but that keeps me focused. I can harness it or I can give in. I will never give in.

“Begone, Fear!” I declare. I swat at the bug with one hand, but he dodges and scurries away. Paying him no further heed, I look up and climb on. The sky is still dark with clouds; now those clouds seem so much closer.

I reach the top of the cliff. Darius and Thomas pull me up. I am shaking. My whole body aches. But I am live!

Cedric folds his arms and raises an eyebrow. “Where’s Leon?”

We look over the ledge. We see a figure at the bottom making its way back down the Mountain’s slope. Leon.

Darius sighs sadly. “He gave in to Fear.”

We turn from the cliff. We now stand at the mouth of a cave. Cedric whispers, “Conflict’s Cave. We must pass through it.”

We shuffle into the tunnel. It is warm and light; torches burn on the cave walls. I know not how they got there nor who lit them. I don’t want to know.

We follow the tunnel for some time, not speaking. The only sounds are boots crunching over sand and stones and the soft clinking of the swords on our belts. The tunnel leads us to a wide, tall chamber. Stalagmites and stalactites decorate the cavern.

In the centre of this chamber stands a tall knight. His armour is dark. The gaze watching us through that metal visor is burning with wrath. He brandishes a great sword and roars. His voice is iron. His stance screams violence.

“I am Conflict. I am Hate. I. Am. War!

We draw our blades and encircle the knight. Four against one, how can he possibly win?

Cedric attacks first. Conflict parries his blow and kicks him with inhuman strength, sending Cedric through the air. Our leader slams into a broad stalagmite and slumps over, groaning in pain.

Darius and Thomas attack next, moving at the same time from opposite sides. In a flurry of blows and parries, steel meets steel and sparks fly. But Conflict is too strong and fast. He knocks Darius’s sword from his grasp. He rams into Thomas, knocking him down. Conflict raises his weapon to end my friend’s life, but now his back faces me. I will not let him kill Thomas.

I scream and lunge forward, stabbing my blade into Conflict’s dark armour. The plate is impenetrable, and my blade glances off harmlessly. Deep, guttural chortles emanate from the dark knight. The sound shakes my bones. He leaves Thomas and turns to me. I stare up into pulsing, red eyes.

“Fools!” booms Conflict’s iron voice. “You mortals fight me only to meet your deaths. I am the ender of lives, the downfall of kingdoms. I am inexorable!”

I can’t kill him. I can’t fight him. I can only turn and run. The chamber’s exit is opposite the side we came in, so I dash for it, dropping my sword as I go. Thomas and Darius follow.

When I reach the exit, I remember Cedric. I stop and look back. Our leader is back on his feet, sword ready. He’s facing Conflict.

“Cedric, don’t!” I shout. “Just run!”

Cedric does not listen. Of course not; he lives by the sword. He thinks it valiant and honourable; now he’s going to die by it.

He swings at Conflict. We watch in horror as the dark knight stops Cedric’s blade with the palm of his gauntlet. Conflict wrenches the sword from Cedric’s hands and throws it across the room. Before Cedric can react, Conflict roars and plunges his great sword into our leader’s chest.

I gasp. A sick feeling grips my stomach. Darius takes my arm and pulls Thomas and me out the chamber. “We can’t just leave him!” I shout.

“Too late,” replies Darius. His voice is broken. This is just as hard for him.

We have entered another tunnel. As we follow it, Darius says, “This will lead us directly into a tower. The entrance to the tower is a gate.”

I know this. We had all memorised the trials of the journey together. Facing them is proving to be far worse than we’d imagined.

Now we reach the end of the tunnel. We’re at a gate, and beyond the gate is a room of bricks—the bottom floor of the tower we must ascend. The gate is open, but a man stands in the way. His clothes are tattered and his beard unkempt. When he sees us, he says, “Do you deserve to go any further?”

“Excuse me?” asks Darius.

“Darius,” I say softly. “You know this is Guilt’s Gate. He’s going to try convince us not to go further.”

Guilt hears this and snorts. “Please, you already know you can’t go further.” He looks directly at Darius and continues. “You left your first companion to Greed, your second to Fear. Your leader is now dead because you fled. Do you know that you could have saved him? You could have reasoned with all of them, and they’d all be here now. But you failed, perhaps worse than them. You don’t deserve to reach the Light.”

“Darius,” I say again. “You know better than to listen.”

But when I look at his face, I see it’s too late. Tears streak down his cheeks. He groans, “I don’t deserve to succeed.”

Doubt now gnaws at me. If Darius doesn’t deserve to go further, I certainly don’t. I look at Thomas. He meets my eyes with a defiant gaze. I sigh and shake my head, chasing Guilt’s words out my mind. “No one will ever deserve it,” I say, trying to reason with Darius.

Guilt pipes up. “Wrong! You can atone for your failures. Come back after doing one hundred good deeds, and I’ll deem you worthy.”

I say, “I don’t need your approval; the gate is open!”

I push past him, into the room. Thomas follows, but Darius does not. When we look at him, he says sadly, “I’m sorry. But I’ll meet you there; I promise! I just need to do some good first.”

He turns and runs away. I wonder where he’ll go. Will Conflict stop him?

Thomas taps my shoulder, drawing my attention back to our next trial: the tower. Temptation’s Tower. So far, it seems harmless enough. But we’re only at the bottom, in a small, circular room. A stairway leads up. We follow it.

Up and up we go, higher and higher, following the stairs in a spiral. So uneventful is this part of the journey that I wonder if we might be in the wrong tower. Where is Temptation?

The further we go, the colder it gets. There’s no telling how high up the Mountain we are now, but I image we’re near the clouds, perhaps even past them.

Then we reach the top of the tower. We step out into a room much like the one at the bottom. Only this one is neither dull nor cold. There is a fireplace warming it. There is a table laden with succulent food and colourful decorations. A woman sits at the table.

When she sees us and stands, I am enchanted by her beauty. Her long hair is dark as night. Her skin is pale and smooth. Her blue eyes are enticing, and her face is perfect.

She smiles invitingly and says, “Welcome! Please, eat with me; I’ve been so lonely.”

My stomach growls. My eyelids grow heavy in the warm air of this chamber. A meal and a rest would be nice.

Snap out of it! I tell myself. You’ve come so far. Don’t fall to Temptation.

“Thank you, m’lady,” I say. “But we really must keep going.”

I see a wooden door, the way out of this tower. I move to it, but Temptation steps in the way. She comes close, intoxicating me with her sweet perfume. “Just stay a little while. You can go later. You need to eat and rest, and I would very much love some company.”

I want to give in. No, I can’t! I push past her, lay my hand on the door handle, and look to Thomas.

“Thomas!” I shout when I see him seated at the table, biting into a peach. Temptation giggles and runs to him. She ruffles his hair and hisses at me. Her beautiful face is now twisted, her soothing voice now wicked. “He is mine! He will never follow you.”

I look at Thomas, my dear friend. I call his name again, but he doesn’t even look at me. He finishes the peach, takes another, and looks at Temptation with a stupid grin. Sickened, I shove open the door and step out.

I stand in the clouds, surrounded by mist. A rope bridge stretches before me, disappearing in the cloud. I cannot see where it leads. I begin crossing it, taking slow steps.

Soon I’m at a point where I can no longer see the tower behind me nor the end of the bridge ahead. I see only thick mist. According to legend, this must be Failure’s Fog, so named because it is the trial none have passed. I know not what lies beyond it, but I am determined to be the first to find out. I am determined to reach the Light.

But as I go further, my doubt grows. I start to tremble in the cold. Unwelcome emotions rush over me: sorrow for the friends I lost, anxiety for the path ahead, crushing loneliness. My shaking gets so bad that I stop and sit on the planks, hugging myself, trying to calm down and clear my mind. It’s only getting worse. I feel weak. I feel sick. I feel like I can never reach the Light, like I can never be more than a lost failure on a forsaken bridge.

“You’ll never make it,” says a familiar voice.

Startled, I look up. There, standing before me, is . . . Me. I jump up, cock my head. “What in the world?”

“I am the one trial you can never pass,” says Me. “You can never finish the ascent.”

“Why not?” I ask, confused.

“You are pathetic. You fail. You are human.”

Tears well up in my eyes. “I’ve come so far!”

Me shrugs. “Not even halfway yet.”

I bury my face in my hands and groan. This is just another trial. I must ignore Me and move on. Determined, I straighten my back and take a step forward.

But Me stops me, “I mean it. You can’t reach the top; it’s impossible. All you can do is fall!

With frightful strength, Me grips my shoulder and shoves me to the side. I fly off the bridge. Fog swallows me.

I shut my eyes. The fall is long and dreadful; the feeling is eerie. I expect a sudden darkness, painless death. But a frozen slap greets me instead as I plunge into the lake at the foot of the Mountain. Cold water swallows me.

My body’s desire to survive kicks in. I open my eyes, hold my breath and swim up. I break the surface of the lake, gasping for air. I struggle to the nearest bank and pull myself onto the ground.

There I lie on my back as a wave of sobs shakes me. I failed. The other knights failed. We’ll never see the Light.

Someone approaches. A gentle voice says, “Get up, child.”

I sit. The old man we met at the start of the journey stands by me. “Come to gloat?” I ask. “Well, you were right, old man.”

He smiles kindly. “I know I was. But no, no gloating. I wanted to tell you something when you started your journey, but you wouldn’t listen. Will you listen now?”

I’m a broken failure. I have nothing left to do. I might as well listen. I nod at the old man, and he says, “I want you to look at me. Forget about your silly quest, forget about this world you’re enraptured by, and look at me.”

I obey. I look at him, focusing on his old face. But, wait, it’s not old at all! It’s not young either. It’s . . . timeless. And his eyes aren’t aged and dim, they’re sparkling gold and blazing with furious energy. I see now that his hair, which I previously thought was grey, is rich silver. He is not clothed poorly, but in fabrics that seem sewn from the clouds. An intricate crown rests on his head, glowing warmly as though it were fashioned from pure sunlight. How could I not have seen him like this before?

“Because you refused to look,” he replied, reading my thoughts.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I am the Light of the world. I am the Star-forger, the War-ender, the Life-bringer. I am.”

I stand up now and stare with a gaping mouth. “You’re the Light? I thought you were at the top of the Mountain.”

“I am. I am also here. I am also in your kingdom back home. You don’t need to go on some quest to find me; I’ve always been all around you.”

Wild ideas rush through my mind as I try make sense of it all. “But I still need to reach the top of the Mountain to receive the peace and joy you are rumoured to give, right?”

“Wrong,” says the Light with a cheery chuckle. “You’ll never reach the top on your own. Yet I want you to have my joy and peace. I want you to stand against the trials that cast you down. So, I have come down from the Mountain to offer myself to you. All you must do is accept me.”

I don’t know what to think. If what he says is true, my whole world is about to change. Life is not what I thought. But how do I know it’s true?

“Easy, just look around you,” he answers. “Watch the majestic clouds above, bearing water that brings life to the soil. Look at the tranquil lake, the distant forest. Hear the whispering wind. Feel your beating heart, your breathing lungs. Are these not all works of art? If so, there must be an artist.”

I counter, “I believe there is an artist. It might very well be you. But is he—are you—good? The art, this world, is not always so good. It is full of darkness and pain, trials and suffering.”

“I use those darker shades to paint the masterpiece. I see the full picture, the beginning and the end, and it is perfect. You do not see all, so when you see the darkness, you don’t see it bowing in defeat. You don’t see the death of pain. You don’t see temporal sorrow give way to eternal joy. I do, for it is my plan, and I am always in control. Trust me and take hold of what I offer.”

As he speaks, I feel every word reverberate through the world around me. I feel the forest and the lake and the Mountain listen intently. I feel the stars above the clouds stare down in awe at their maker. I feel that what he offers is true, and I want it. But there is one thing holding me back, one small doubt. “Why do you care? Why offer your gift to me if I’ve already failed? I am not worthy.”

“You are not worthy,” he confirmed. “You don’t have to be. You are my work of art. You are my child. I dreamt of you even before the world began. Don’t you see? I love you.”

I tremble again, this time in wonder. Fresh tears well up—tears of joy. I look into those golden eyes and see infinite goodness. I kneel and bow my head. “I accept you, my King.”

He pulls me up and embraces me, laughing heartily. “My child, how joyed I am with you!”

Now, my life changes. The shallow gives way to endless depth. I see beauty all around, and the Light burns in my heart, even when the world seems dark.

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